Today! Because I wish I were you people seeing this for the first time –
The Great Muppet Caper (1981)
Directed by Jim Henson
Starring Jim Henson (x2), Frank Oz (x9), Jerry Nelson (x5), Dave Goelz (x5), Richard Hunt (x2), Charles Grodin (x2), Diana Rigg (x2), Jack Warden (x4), John Cleese (x4), Peter Ustinov (x2), Peter Falk (x5), Robert Morley, Steve Whitmire (x5), Louise Gold (x3), Caroll Spinney, Erica Creer, Kate Howard, Della Finch
The second feature Muppet film and the first released after The Muppet Show ended, The Great Muppet Caper had a higher degree of difficulty than any other film in the series, before or since. Figure, it’s the only non-adaptation film that doesn’t in some way incorporate putting on a show or show business as the backdrop (Muppets From Space is the only other one close, and that has a lot of Piggy’s aspiring journalism career at center). So they’ve crammed the familiar characters into oddball new roles – weirdly, again, journalism, but of the print variety, plus hotel management – albeit with their same names, and more fourth wall breaking than any other movie to explain this conceit. It had only been two years since the smash hit original Muppet Movie, and they didn’t have terrific Paul Williams songs to eat up a bunch of the run time (Muppet Caper‘s songs are still great, though). This one needed tons of jokes and cameos and a strong narrative to succeed, and it came through on all counts.
As a kid, I probably liked this Muppet outing best, or had it in a very close contest with Takes Manhattan. It’s a lot sillier than the original film, but still keeps the gang largely together unlike Manhattan. The England setting produces a bunch of fun gags (like The Muppet Show, Muppet Caper was filmed in and near London) and it features the most action packed finale of the franchise – a sequence not even attempted to be equaled by any successive movie until Most Wanted – which largely functioned as the Muppet Caper to 2011’s Muppets as Muppet Movie. Does that makes sense? I didn’t get to talk about Most Wanted on this list because it missed the cut off date, but I’m afraid people skipped it, as it got lost in theaters. Go watch Muppets Most Wanted, it’s pretty fun.
But it’s not as fun as its obvious inspiration, 1981’s quest to thwart the theft of the fabulous Baseball Diamond from the Mallory Gallery. This one has a bunch of personal connections for me – besides again loving the soundtrack from “Hey It’s a Movie!” to “Happiness Hotel” – but I’ll just quick share a few: whenever we’re watching a movie or TV show and a character rambles on with a ton of information the audience needs to know but makes no sense for the other characters in the scene, I will invariably quote Diana Rigg’s Lady Holiday: “It’s plot exposition, it has to go somewhere.”
In (I want to say) 2003 I co-wrote a play produced in the bustling theater metropolis of Jessup, Pennsylvania that was basically a compilation of ten-minuters into a loosely strung together evening of yuks. Dane and I (shoutout Dane Bower!) couldn’t hit upon a title for this Frankenstein of a show, set primarily in a bar as the scenes played out behind, until I remembered Piggy’s throwaway line in Muppet Caper. She’s broken into a posh London residence, pretending it’s her own before Kermit picks her up on their date, and is confronted by the owner, played by John Cleese. He, being a polite Brit, asks if there’s anything he can do for them, instead of hurling them into the street, wherein some information is exchanged and Piggy dismisses him with “Thank you, Jeeves. No time for cocktails.” Thus, No Time For Cocktails took the Jessup theater world by storm for a lone weekend seventeen years ago, and no one is still talking about it to this day.
Just barely missing the top 50, Muppet Caper is the only Jim Henson directed film to make the list – in fairness, his only other movies were Labyrinth and Dark Crystal, and as much as I adored them as a kid, those movies are not holding up for me these days. This is the fifth Muppet film on the list, following #312 Treasure Island, #188 Christmas Carol, #111 Takes Manhattan, and #279 From Space, thus the huge advancing group above, but it’s Frank Oz leading the way, coupling his Henson puppeteering with that done for Lucas and reaching the Nine-Timers, only the second actor to reach this level, alongside Phantom Menace co-star Samuel L.