Why The Great Muppet Caper Was Jim Henson’s Best Work

With an amazing body of work that has entertained and inspired millions, which one of Jim Henson’s creations was his greatest?

The Great Muppet Caper came out in 1981 and was a mystery musical comedy set in England. It told the story of the Muppets traveling to England to report a jewel heist but ends up with Kermit connecting with Miss Piggy while all of them foil another robbery.

The Great Muppet Caper was unique to me. I partly grew up in England and The Great Muppet Caper was set there so the first time I ever saw it was in the country it was based. This was something I always associated with England and it was the coming together of two things I loved.

There are so many classics from Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, and Dog City. I’ve loved everything Jim Henson has put out – even The Cube – but to me, The Great Muppet Caper was his best work.

Let’s take a look at why.

A Quick Recap Of The Plot Of The Great Muppet Caper

We’ll get to everything surrounding the self-awareness of the movie and the breaking of the fourth wall, but the movie starts out by laying the groundwork that this will be a unique viewing experience.

We see Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo in hot air balloons seemingly floating through the opening credits of the movie. This was shot in New Mexico where they set up the staging with Animal destroying the scene and then zoom in to a real balloon in the sky in the distance that actually had the Muppets and performers in it. 

 This takes us to an amazing street musical number that reveals they are reporters working for the Daily Chronicle newspaper.

Their boss, played by Jack Warden, cannot believe they missed reporting on a jewel robbery that happened right under their noses. They convince their boss to fly them to London to report on the robbery that had happened to Lady Halliday.

They fly 9th class and are jettisoned out of the planes landing in a small pond relieved to find out they are in England. They look for accommodation that takes them to the Happiness Hotel where every other muppet in the world seems to be staying.

Side note: There’s obviously no continuity between The Muppet Movie and The Great Muppet Caper where all of them are seemingly meeting for the first time again.

Kermit, Gonzo, and Fozzie go to interview Lady Halliday but mistakenly get Miss Piggy posing as Halliday. Kermit and Piggy fall for each other and plan a date with Piggy posing as her wealthy boss. She pretends to live in an English mansion where we get to see the great John Cleese.

While out at a nightclub, the real Lady Halliday shows up only to have her jewels stolen by her brother Nicky – who doesn’t have an English accent for some reason. Nicky has also fallen for Miss Piggy but decides to frame her for the robbery as the heat is breathing down his neck. We get an awesome homage to early Hollywood musicals with a synchronized swimming performance where Piggy is revealed as the “thief”.

With Piggy in Jail, the rest of the Muppets learn of the plot to steal Halliday’s famous “baseball diamond” being held at the Mallory Gallery. While the inept muppets go to thwart the robbery, Piggy breaks out of jail and they all get credited for stopping the robbery. The Muppets then head back to the U.S. flying in 9th class and are tossed out by parachute.

The Great Muppet Caper Cast

Let’s take a look at the “human” cast before looking at the key Muppet performers (as if you don’t know who those are).

Lady Halliday – played by Diana Rigg (If you don’t know her, she was Olenna Tyrell in Game of Thrones, and was also the Evil Queen in the 1987 live Snow White film)

Nicky Halliday – an awesome performance by Charles Grodin who was actually 48 when he filmed this. 

Those are the two key performers besides Jack Warden (Used Cars, Problem Child, Bewitched, and A LOT of other things) and the rest are classic Muppet Cameos including:

  • Peter Falk
  • Joan Sanderson (was once on an episode of Full House)
  • Robert Morley – the man by the pond who is a theatre veteran and has appeared in over 100 movies
  • Peter Ustinov – the truck driver who is another English acting legend who appeared in things like Spartacus, Logan’s Run, the Muppet Show, and most importantly, was the voice of Dr. Snuggles
  • Peter Huges

The Muppet Performers

Jim Henson: Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Waldorf, The Swedish Chef (I’m embarrassed to say I never knew this till now) The Muppet newsman, and a cameo in the movie

Frank Oz: Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Animal, Sam the Eagle, also a cameo as a Chronicle reporter

Jerry Nelson: Floyd Pepper, Pops, Lew Zealand, cameo as a man in the park

Richard Hunt: Scooter, Statler, Sweetums, Janice, Beaker, cameo as a cab driver

Dave Goelz: Gonzo, Beauregard, Zoot, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew

Steve Whitmire: Rizzo the Rat, Lips

The Great Music From The Movie

To me, The Great Muppet Caper had some of the most memorable music of anything the Muppets had put out. Music was the backbone of everything that Jim Henson seemed to do and I think it’s displayed at it’s best in this movie.

The movie’s theme was a mystery musical comedy and really is at the center of all his movies. Among other songs, some of the standouts in The Great Muppet Caper include:

  • The First Time It Happens
  • Hey A Movie!
  • Happiness Hotel
  • Steppin Out With A Star
  • Couldn’t We Ride (why is it so creepy watching Muppets ride bikes?)

The Muppets Take Manhattan and the Muppet Movie both had memorable songs, but I think during the Great Muppet Caper there were more that stayed with you after watching it. I rewatched it last night and have a bunch of these still in my head – though “Night Life” is one of the worst songs they ever did. Hey, they all can’t be “Rainbow Connection”…

This movie, however, is a real tribute to the grand tradition of movie musicals as well as variety shows – both at the core of all things Henson.

“The First Time It Happens” was actually nominated for an Academy Award for best original song, but lost to “Arthur’s Theme”. Miss Piggy, however, won the Youth in Film Award for Best Young Musical Recording Artist for her performance in “The First Time It Happens”.

Explain that one. 

So, keeping all of this in mind, what are a few more reasons why The Great Muppet Caper Jim Henson’s greatest work?

It Was The Only Muppet Movie Directed By Henson

Henson pulled a lot of double duty in his time – actually make that quintuple duty. Along with being the key performer, he was also the creative genius, writer, director, and producer. You obviously can’t keep all these things up forever and he had a great team around him – notably Frank Oz – who could take on directorial duties.

Because he wore so many hats, The Great Muppet Caper was actually the only movie that Henson ever directed. Due to this, I believe is has the utmost love and Henson care put into it. He was making this his total pet project and sharing his love for the golden age of Hollywood. 

I feel the Great Muppet Caper was the perfect showcase for Henson’s whimsy, humor, love of music, and extravagance. This all still existed in his other projects, but I feel it was showcased the best here.

The Great Muppet Caper Captured The Spirit of The Muppet Show

The Muppet Show is an iconic part of television and a worldwide hit. It started out as two pilot episodes in 1974 and then in 1975 airing on ABC. The Muppet Show capitalized on the popularity of variety shows from the 70s including sketches, musical bits, and guest stars.

It would run from 1976 to 1981 for 120 episodes. The whole world became familiar with all the different Muppet Characters and the opening theme song is one of the most famous in television history. 

The Muppet Show was nominated for an incredible 21 different Emmy awards winning 4 while at the same time winning a Grammy, BAFTA, and Peabody award. The Great Muppet Caper was the first thing that came out after the Muppet Show ended and it really brought that whole style to the big screen. Jim Henson said in an interview  in 1981 with CBS News that with The Muppet Show:

“they bring a guest into the Muppet world, and with the feature, we’re taking the characters out into the real world. And that’s a lot of fun.” 

The original Muppet Movie – even with its humor and music – was more of an origin story. The Great Muppet Caper seemed to tap into the zaniness and chaos of the Muppet Show. I believe this was done as the world was now familiar with The Muppet Show and all the nuances to the characters. It was like they were able to spread their wings a bit more and make the type of movie more in tune with what we had been watching on TV for the past 5 years.

The Muppet Show was big with behind the scenes and “seeing how the sausage is made” and I feel this is why they included so much self-reference and breaking of the fourth wall in the Great Muppet Caper.

They were being very tongue in cheek with the production showing that they were making a movie while it was happening. Again, very Muppet Show-ish. Throughout the movie, they often mock the conventions of most films and let you in on the joke. 

That seems kind of normal today but was relatively groundbreaking for the time. Side note: The Muppet Show – and this backstage style – was a big influence on 30 Rock. In 30 Rock you had the behind the scenes of what is involved with putting on a weekly variety show (and they often featured Muppets on the show…)

And there are even similarities between the two shows characters:

  • Liz Lemon is Kermit
  • Jenna Maroney is Miss Piggy
  • Kenneth is Scooter
  • Tracey Morgan is Gonzo
  • Jack is Same the Eagle.  

The Great Muppet Caper Continued The English Connection

England, The Muppets, and Jim Henson all go hand-in-hand. Henson embraced filming in the U.K. as The Muppet Show was first embraced by the English. When those two Muppet Show pilots were developed, ABC wasn’t going to go forward with them. Henson was then shopping the concept around to the other networks who also weren’t interested.

It was British producer Lew Grade who thought the idea was great and wanted to co-produce The Muppet Show. The entire run of the show would be filmed in England at the famous Elstree Studios, also the home of Star Wars.

This was pretty remarkable as the concept of filming outside the U.S., let alone overseas, hadn’t really been done. When the show first debuted in England in September 1976, it would start attracting 14 million viewers just a few months later.

This was instrumental in the success of the Muppets as it was broadcast on ITV along with their other franchises allowing it to have more worldwide syndication. Just one year after it debuted in England it was being shown in over 100 different countries. 

Henson would continue to embrace this British connection by not only setting The Great Muppet Caper in England but filming it there. He would also return to film The Dark Crystal (check out my review of the Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance) and Labyrinth.

Wrapping It Up

So that’s the rundown on The Great Muppet Caper. It’s one of my favorite things done by Jim Henson and I believe it’s his best work. It took all the aspects that he had poured into the Muppets and put it all into one movie.

It’s fun, musical, zany, and doesn’t take itself too seriously – all traits that are embraced by Henson The Muppets. It’s the most fast-paced Muppet movie that pulls you along for the ride. After all these years, and all the different Jim Henson content, it’s the one I always find myself wanting to watch.