Monday, April 23, 2012

The Great Muppet Caper, Part 1: Going Through the Motion Pictures

Muppet movies generally come in two types.  In Type A, the Muppets appear as themselves, usually trying to put on some sort of show, working as a loose extension of The Muppet Show. In Type B (the common post-Henson type), a public-domain story is reenacted by the Muppets, like an elongated theme episode of The Muppet Show.  Then there is Type C: The Great Muppet Caper.

It defies all known conventions.

This was the second feature-length Muppet movie and the first full-length film directed by Jim Henson.  It is also the only Muppet film directed by Henson, and when compared with the others in the original triliogy (The Muppet Movie and The Muppets Take Manhattan), it stands out as the quirkiest, the cleverest, and the Hensonest of the bunch.  In kind of a weird combination of the two types mentioned above, Caper tells an original story about a jewlery heist in London, featuring the Muppets as themselves (except, not themselves).  It can get a little confusing, but it is all quickly explained during the opening number.

Basically, this is a movie that is a parody of a movie.  It's not a parody of a heist movie.  It's just a parody of a movie, in general.  Wasn't that what The Muppet Movie was for?  No.  That was a movie about trying to make a movie and the road trip that led up to it.  While they did break the fourth wall occassionally to play with movie clichés, it was a personal story about the Muppets' journey.  Caper is result of when someone takes a basic movie script and spills a bottle of Muppets all over it.  This is evident from the very first image.


Right away, we have Animal replacing the MGM lion as a little visual gag.  This is just a minor hint towards the meta-commentary on movies that is about to unfold.

We pan past Animal into the bright blue sky.  Before the title even appears, we are presented with Kermit, Fozzie, and Gonzo riding in a hot air balloon.  Why are they in a balloon?  It's never explained.  What do they do in the balloon?  Why, they float through the title and opening credits of course!

Don't stare at the sun.

There is no clue as to what the story will be yet.  Kermit and company just comment on the credits themselves, noting that this is going to be a very fun movie is so many people worked on it.  Eventually, Fozzie gets board with sitting through them all and Kermit assures him that the movie is about to start.  And then, they literally drop right into  the movie as it is taking place.  Cue the opening number, "Hey, A Movie!"

I've discussed this song before, but feel free to watch it again.  It's fun!

And what a movie it is!  Mayhem and dancing and singing and slapstick.  Everything great about the movies is captured in this brief moment.  We also let Kermit explain the movie's premise.  He and Fozzie are playing "Kermit and Fozzie, investigative journalists."  And that is all we need to know.  The movie expects you to be familiar enough with the characters and stereotypical plot elements to draw your own conclusions about what is going on.  We're now ready for a movie.

During the chaos of the opening scene, we witness a wealthy lady (Diana Rigg) get her jewels stolen by some masked burglar (played by Charles Grodin).  Kermit and Fozzie of course, miss the big story, instead presenting their boss with the story of themselves being journalists.  Identical twin journalists.  So, the audience is now expected to make a further leap in logic and must constantly remind themselves that Kermit and Fozzie are visually identical in this story.  If that isn't a Henson-style joke, I don't know what is.

They are the spitting image of their father.

Their boss gives them one last chance to get the big story about the missing jewels.  Along with their photographer Gonzo, they travel to London to meet the victim, Lady Holiday.  And, because they have no money, they must travel via the cargo bay.

So that's what Gonzo is!

They are unceremoniously dumped out of the plane over England, and receive a piece of advice from a kind local for a cheap (free) place to stay.  He recommends the Happiness Hotel, which can also be known as "The Place We Stick Every Other Muppet Apart from the Main Four Because It's a Muppet Movie and Fans Would Be Upset If They Didn't See Their Favorite Characters."

The gang's all here!  They just aren't important this time!  See you guys during the film's climax!

Seriously, this movie feels is if it was completely written, with Kermit, Fozzie, Gonzo, and Piggy's story and then the writers remembered, "Crap! We have to fit in 50 more puppets!"  So, this "Muppet-Show-away-from-home" is the low-low-low-scale Happiness Hotel, which only has one positive quality: there are Muppets living there.  So at least we know we'll get a song out of it!

You may notice as you watch the hotel scenes that a couple of characters who were not created when the first movie was made get more lines then the others. It's basically the creators' way of giving theatrical introductions to their newer characters.

Finally, it's Pops's time to shine!

Even though they are shoehorned into the script, the other Muppets make the most of their glorified cameos, filled with wonderful jokes.  And, they do not overstay their welcome.  Henson understood that they were not essential to the plot, so he used them sparingly and effectively.  The crappy hotel is a wonderful set piece to house them all and it is crucial to the movie, if only because these scenes provide plenty of zany humor.

Does the movie have a malfunctioning Murphy bed, you ask?  Don't worry, Henson's got you covered.

Back to the main plot, we drop in on Lady Holiday, who is a high-class fashion designer.  Despite her stiff demeanor, she haphazardly treats her outfits in a great piece of physical comedy that is masked by her eloquent dialogue.  With prissy models acting catty about her alterations, the audience may begin to wonder where Miss Piggy is in all of this?  Surely she'd be right at home in this setting.

Right on cue.

Piggy, in a rare turn, is instantly humbled in the presence of Lady Holiday, and despite her lackluster portfolio and unreasonable demands to become a high-end fashion star, Piggy gleeful accepts Holiday's offer for becoming her receptionist.

Although, "Reeking Grandeur"shows great potential.

Holiday uses this moment to explain to Piggy all about her playboy brother Nicky, who constantly preys on her wealth. Every bit of background info we need on these characters is laid out in great detail. Why is she doing this, Piggy asks. Because all of this exposition "has to go somewhere," replies Holiday.

And with that, everything is set in place for our movie to unfold. Tomorrow, in Part 2, Kermit and Piggy's stories will intertwine in a most humorous fashion.

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