After the success of The Muppet Movie, a sequel was inevitable, and one appeared barely 18 months after the original’s Christmas 1979 release. In the summer of 1981, we got The Great Muppet Caper, another fun and frisky adventure starring our favorite goofy puppets.
Most Muppet fans prefer the first film to the sequels, which include 1984’s The Muppets Take Manhattan, 1992’s Muppet Christmas Carol, 1996’s Muppet Treasure Island and 1999’s Muppets From Space. Although I haven’t seen their takes on A Christmas Carol or Treasure Island, I have to agree with the negative assessment of Muppets From Space. That movie had some potential but it lacked spark or excitement.
However, I can’t concur with the vaguely negative feelings toward the two Muppet flicks from the Eighties. In many ways, I thought Manhattan was superior to the first film, as it focused more on the characters themselves and less on gimmicks. The Great Muppet Caper followed in a same vein; while I can’t clearly say I preferred it to the original flick, it succeeded in some ways that the 1979 piece didn’t.
I was somewhat surprised to feel this way. As I noted in my review of Manhattan, Caper was the last Muppet film I saw theatrically. I’d loved TMM but I felt moderately disappointed by the sequel. At least that’s the memory I retain; this was 20 years ago, so I can’t say I’m positive that I wasn’t wild about Caper.
Nonetheless, I found the 1981 film to be generally fun and entertaining in its own right. As with most of the Muppet flicks, the story was somewhat superfluous, but I’ll cover it anyway. Kermit the Frog (voiced by Jim Henson) and Fozzie Bear (Frank Oz) are twins who come to New York with their photographer friend Gonzo (Dave Goelz). They get a job as newspaper reporters because the editor (Jack Warden) was friends with their father. However, when they fail to pick up a huge story that develops right under their noses, they get in trouble and are almost fired. They attempt to redeem themselves as they pursue the facts of a big jewel heist.
Although the robbery took place in New York, the principals all live in England, so the twins and Gonzo head to the UK to get the scoop. There they plan to chat with Lady Holiday (Diana Rigg), the wealthy fashion designers whose jewelry was stolen. Along the way they meet the usual crew of nutty Muppets such as Animal (Oz), Dr. Teeth (Henson), and a slew of others.
Of course, Kermit also encounters and falls for Miss Piggy (Oz again), and she becomes a plot snag. Piggy wants to model for Lady Holiday, but instead she just gets a gig as a receptionist. However, Kermit mistakenly thinks that Piggy is Holiday, and since she wants to spend time with him, Piggy encourages the ruse. Matters complicate when Holiday’s ne’er-do-well brother Nicky (Charles Grodin) tries to frame Piggy for the crime, and Kermit - swept up by the blindness of true love - has to sort out the truth.
It should come as no surprise that all will end happily, and all will conclude entertainingly as well. Of the first three Muppet films, I probably prefer Manhattan just because it seemed to be the loosest of the bunch. Nonetheless, all of them are a lot of fun, and Caper certainly has its moments.
Caper was possibly the most tongue in cheek of the three, and its sly attitude carries the day throughout the film. The gag about how Fozzie and Kermit are twins is played for all its worth, and probably more. The bit wears thin at times, but it seems worth it if just to see the picture of Warden with their father; that mutant combination of Frog and Bear makes the movie worthwhile on its own.
In addition, Caper likes to break down walls and acknowledge that it’s a movie. From the very start, Kermit tells us how they’re playing reporters in the film, and there’s very little pretense of reality. Again, this can get a little old on occasion, but it allows the proceedings to loosen up and become delightfully frisky at times.
Of course, the plot is paper thin; it’s even weaker than the stories behind The Muppet Movie and Manhattan. Nonetheless, this kind of piece doesn’t need a taut narrative to work, and the framework seems to be rich enough to keep the piece moving at an appropriate pace. Although Caper includes some cameos from actors like John Cleese and Peter Falk, these seem to be much less intrusive than the “star a minute” technique displayed in TMM. For everything else that film did well, the ridiculous number of cameos really harmed it, since almost all of them were absurdly gratuitous and pointless. Those in Caper were more fun and intruded less; look for an especially witty appearance by Peter Ustinov.
Ultimately, The Great Muppet Caper was an erratic piece, but it definitely provided a lot of fun. Aficionados will continue to debate the merits of the different Muppet flicks. While I didn’t think Caper was the best of the bunch, it held up well when compared to the others, and it provided a light and entertaining experience.
The Great Muppet Caper appears in both an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the widescreen image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen picture was reviewed for this article. Although the film often looked good, a large number of problems kept it from becoming anything special.
Sharpness consistently appeared strong. The movie always presented a crisp and detailed image that lacked many signs of softness or fuzziness. Due to factors I’ll soon discuss, the clarity of the picture could be compromised at times, but I didn’t feel that most of these concerns related to the focus of the material itself; those elements usually remained distinct and concise. I also saw no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges.
Most movies with lively palettes show those colors through clothes, backgrounds or other non-performing elements. That wasn’t the case with Caper; in this flick, it was the actors themselves who provided the brightest hues! Though some of the sets also presented nice tones, the best colors were found in the various Muppets. Those critters covered pretty much every color in the rainbow, and I thought the tones usually looked solid. Reds seemed particularly vivid and accurate, but all of the other hues also came across as clean and vibrant. The film’s best moments involved the Dr. Teeth Band, as the wild mix of Muppets made for a real explosion of color. Sometimes extraneous elements compromised the quality of the colors, but they usually seemed strong.
Black levels generally seemed positive, with dark tones that appeared acceptably deep and rich. However, shadow detail was a little lacking. Some low-light situations came across as a bit dark and dense, with images that could be somewhat hard to discern. I didn’t think the picture seemed muddy, though, and the film included few enough dim sequences that this wasn’t much of a concern. Most notable were the shots in Lady Holiday’s office; these looked bland and ill-defined.
Much more significant were print flaws. Most of the usual culprits made few appearances during The Great Muppet Caper. I detected periodic examples of grit, speckles, and small debris such as a few hairs, and these could crop up with modest frequency. However, the worst offender was grain. The opening credits showed intense grain, and many more segments would appear similarly marred. The grain wasn’t consistent, as quite a few scenes seemed to feature none of it, and others only displayed light problems with it. When it got intense, though, it could become quite heavy.
The print flaws seemed to reside mostly in the first half of the movie. I must acknowledge that the second part of Caper looked considerably cleaner and fresher. Honestly, it almost appeared to be a different film; flaws still cropped up, especially during the end credits, but otherwise the defects stayed largely in check. That was a good thing, for otherwise this DVD would have been saddled with a “C-“ grade for picture. As it stands, the second half of the movie looked strong enough to bolster my rating to a “C+”, but the result remained disappointing.
More positive was the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix of The Great Muppet Caper. Remixed from the original Dolby Surround track - which also appears on this DVD - the audio presented a fairly decent soundfield for its age. The forward channels showed reasonably positive localization and spread, as a variety of elements blended across speakers and moved together neatly. Panning was acceptably smooth and accurate, and most auditory elements appeared to be appropriately placed. Music showed the strongest separation, but a decent number of effects also cropped up on the sides, and these were fairly convincing.
Surround usage seemed to be relatively high, but it displayed some flaws. Frankly, the rears intruded on the track a little too heavily, as some elements - particularly musical ones - often bled annoying to the surround speakers. Actually, “bled” may not be the correct term, as it usually sounded as though the effect was intentional and didn’t just slip through due to poor mastering.
However, this created a sense of “double stereo” at times. By that I mean the stems from the front and rear seemed to have been duplicated to create an artificial impression of a surround track. At times it appeared that the same instrumentation occupied front and rear channels, and this became somewhat distracting. The mix for Caper attempted a nice level of involvement, but the execution occasionally seemed to be flawed.
Audio quality was generally bland but it appeared to be decent for the era. Speech sounded somewhat thick and flat for the most part, but I heard no signs of edginess and the dialogue always remained intelligible. Much of Caper was looped, and that aspect of the mix made it seem somewhat unnatural at times, but I still had few strong complaints about the speech.
Effects also sounded moderately reedy and stiff at times, but they didn’t appear to be out of character for the time period; I don’t expect phenomenal dynamics from a 20-year-old film, and the effects of Caper have held up reasonably well over the years. Music presented a more mixed bag. Most of the tunes and score sounded somewhat muddy. Highs appeared slightly muffled, and although I heard a fairly heavy bass presence, the low-end often came across as boomy and indistinct.
However, at times I thought these elements improved significantly. For example, “Nightlife” was surprisingly clear and vivid; it didn’t seem like a new recording, but it sounded much more rich and vibrant than most of the rest of the music as it offered clean highs and reasonably taut bass. Unfortunately, that tune was an exception to the rule. Overall, the soundtrack to The Great Muppet Caper was quite acceptable for its age, but it showed some weak aspects and earned a decent but unspectacular “B-“.
Of the three Muppet DVDs released recently, The Great Muppet Caper provides the weakest supplements. While the first two weren’t exactly packed, they did include one solid extra each: The Muppet Movie had some excellent test footage of Muppets in nature, while The Muppets Take Manhattan included an interesting interview with Jim Henson.
Unfortunately, Caper is a more sparse affair. We get three Muppetisms. Created in 1989, these appear to be promotional bits in which a variety of characters espouse little words of wisdom like “express yourself” and “dare to be funky”. One clip features Animal in his own snippet, while the other two offer both pairings of Kermit and Floyd, and Statler and Waldorf, respectively. They run between 30 and 60 seconds for a total of two minutes of material. They’re cute little bits but nothing terribly special.
Lastly, the DVD tosses in a mix of Bonus Trailers. Whenever Columbia-Tristar DVDs tout “bonus” trailers, that means you can forget about finding the promo for the featured flick itself. In any case, here we discover ads for Muppets From Space, The Muppets Take Manhattan, Buddy, and The Adventures of Elmo In Grouchland. Many CTS titles include short production notes within their booklets, but that’s not the case here, as the DVD provides nothing more than a title card.
Despite the lack of extras, The Great Muppet Caper offered a decent DVD. The movie itself was a lot of fun, as it neatly encapsulated the spunky and witty charm of the Muppets. The DVD provided inconsistent picture and sound that were fairly average as a whole, and the supplements lacked any significant components. Nonetheless, The Great Muppet Caper seemed acceptable as a DVD, and the movie was enough fun to merit your attention.