THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: The Great Muppet Caper

15 June, 2019 at 9:44 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: As Fran Kubelik tells us, “Some people take, some get took — and they know they’re getting took — and there’s nothing they can do about it.” Well, Manhattan done got taken, that fool of a Took.

TITLE CARD: The Great Muppet Caper

While Manhattan is my brother’s favorite Muppet film, and while I think some of his comments and perspective helped me appreciate it as a sketch-movie, my comments about its utter lack of an earned ending do stand. And after finishing watching and reading about Muppets Take Manhattan, I was looking forward to revisiting my personal favorite of the Muppet franchise, and seeing how well it holds up and how well it might weather the scrutiny I’d been applying to the other Muppet offerings.

The disappointing news is: not well. I’ve been doing a whole bit over the course of this series where I’ve found a Group of Three, highlighting it early in the write-up, and eventually using it as the way of rating the film as a Success, a Mixed Bag, or a Basic Failure. The obvious way to do that with Caper is with Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo’s shipping containers. My notes say that my alternate take for ratings of this movie were going to be “A) Credit Card, B) Cash, or C) Sneak Out In The Middle Of The Night.”

Which would mean, if this film was only middling in its success, I’d have to give it a RATING between Bears, Frogs, and Gonzos of Frogs, which seems mildly insulting to Kermit. Surely a rating of Frogs should be excellent! Something that’s a mixed bag should be a rating of what is says on Gonzo’s crate, which is Whatever, but that’s the lowest rating, which this film doesn’t deserve. Or, at least, my twenty-year upholding of this film as the pinnacle of Muppet filmmaking won’t let me allow it.

Because, unfortunately, what I love about this film is the strange tone and pacing and the excellent post-modern wall-breaking, and almost all of that goes out the window in the final act, leaving us with a badly-paced, badly-assembled mess that needs more than charm to let the audience feel like their earlier generosity was justified. The deconstruction and chaos need to either pay off in a manner that shows that the clash of fiction and metafiction was purposeful, or need to build to a complete explosion of structure that just abandons structure altogether.

But, in order to show how it goes wrong, we do have to start at the start. Which is pretty wonderful.

GONZO: What a fantastic beginning!

The opening credits in the balloon is light, lilting and gentle, with Fozzie commenting on the fact that the credits are a little boring and Gonzo talking with zest and awe in his voice about much fun it would be to just jump out of the balloon and plummet to the earth. Kermit has to zig between these two perspectives like a parent in the front seat of a station wagon dealing with two irascible offspring. In fact, the whole tone feels perfectly like a child’s primer on metafiction, with the characters commenting on the fact that the movie is a movie and with a child’s level of patience for the classical conventions of credits and overtures.

Take Manhattan is Kermit movie, stretching somewhat to a Kermit & Piggy movie, since she’s the only one who doesn’t actually leave New York to go have her own sketch someplace else, and since the film culminates with their trick marriage. But it’s mostly focused on Kermit and his solo struggles and japes. The Muppet Movie is a Kermit movie, but at a stretch it’s a Kermit & Fozzie movie, as they are the first pairing in the film, and it tends to be the two of them meeting up with whichever character they encounter on the road. It’s a variation on the Hope and Crosby road pictures: a buddy comedy, more amusing because of the interplay between the two than it would be with just one of them getting into solo scrapes, even if Fozzie is largely a character that defers to Kermit and follows his lead, rather than someone with his own agency.

Muppet Caper is ostensibly a Kermit & Fozzie movie as well, set up by the initial conceit that Kermit and Fozzie are twin brothers (their father being one of the creepiest Muppets ever devised… those frog pupils in the middle of that broccoli fur face… ugh), and the tension in the middle of the film of Kermit wanting to go off and romance Miss Piggy without his brother tagging along. But it also plays on the trio aspect of The Bear, The Frog, and The Whatever. The film begins with the three of them in the balloon, the film establishes them as the three actors who know that they’re actors (with the exception of Charles Grodin, they are the only ones who get a solo delivery of the line “Starring everybody/ And me!”) during the costume change moment during the opening number. But it is very much the two reporters and the photographer. Gonzo doesn’t always have something to do, and he goes out of his way to entertain himself. Much like an elementary school student who would cheerfully jump out of a hot-air balloon just to try it, he also gets in a car accident, jumps up to hang from the office light fixture, yelling to stop the presses, and chortling as he photographs pretty much anything that crosses his path.

He is a strange agent of chaos, which is always what I loved about the character. He just loves doing whatever loony impulse comes into his head. However, while this is an endearing quality in a (fictional) character, it does put him over next to the plot instead of being intrinsic to it. I like how much he’s involved in the movie and how much of it is an upgrade from both his slightly sideline status as Just Another One Of The Gang in the first film or his more maudlin moments of isolation and self-pity that populated the early episodes of The Muppet Show, but he’s really just a set of antic punchlines that wanders in and out of scene.

And so the characters fly to London in Ninth Class (by the way, look at the light switches on the wall next to Mr. Tarkanian while he’s having his photo taken… the film is already in London, even if the characters haven’t gotten there yet), and are dropped in a tiny pond about three feet part from each other — which gives you an idea of how slowly that plane must have been flying, physics fans. We then get a film that feels to me like the result of five seasons of filming The Muppet Show in England: a series of mystifying cameos and cultural observations that come across either as simple absurdity or are flying so low under the radar that they don’t come across at all.

So, some personal history: my parents divorced when I was three, and my mother got rid of our household television set soon thereafter, so I grew up with very limited TV access, restricted primarily to each alternate weekend I spent with my father. The first film I saw at the cinema was Star Wars, and whenever I was allowed to watch Sesame Street, I would hope obsessively that it would be an episode in which R2-D2 and C-3P0 would guest-star. Which meant that I watched a lot of fruitless children’s television. Later, when I was very occasionally able to watch The Muppet Show, the basic Muppet premise had been based into my head, and my father, who loves bad puns, encouraged exposure to the material. He would pick up Muppet records and books at yard sales, and I would read and listen to them on repeat. My local public library had two copies of Of Muppets and Men, and between fifth and ninth grade, I checked them out again and again, and eventually bought both copies upon their being discarded.

It wasn’t until college that I first got full access to television, and, coincidentally, that was when I discovered that Nick, Jr. was re-rerunning episodes of The Muppet Show that — because it was for toddlers, and they wanted as few non-content pauses as possible — were the original, longer UK-cuts of the show, which therefore included at least one song or skit per episode that I’d never encountered before. As I was already well-enmeshed in my appalling college-aged Anglophile Phase, this was not only a content revelation, but one more checkmark (“cheque-mark”?) as to why England Was Simply Better. I would rush back to the dorm after BI 170 – “Human Genetics” (Thank you, Dr. Possidente), and record the full audio of the day’s mid-morning offering to catalogue and use in my college radio show. It was somewhere in this period that I re-experienced The Great Muppet Caper and feel in love with its Britishness, its John Cleese cameo, the self-aware deconstruction, and some of the unheralded songs. And having discovered a whole slew of additionally unheralded songs that were cut for American TV, often which were slower or didn’t involve the guest-star, and were often just the Muppets making good, harmonic, comtemplative music in an unshowy way, I found myself wanting to be that herald.

All of which is to say, that while I’m probably not the best person to untangle all of the British references smuggled into the film, there are tiny bits of oddness that to me help make most of the film a classic example of The Whole Is Greater That The Sum Of Its Parts. They arrive at the Happiness Hotel, located in the London borough of “Cheapside“, which is a brilliant little joke, and we arrive, thirteen minutes in, to the second song of the film. It is a lively, jouncy number that prominently features both The Electric Mayhem and the Mississippi Bluegrass bands, for no particular reason except to change the musical styles and instrumentations in the middle of the song and to stick a double dose of Americana in the midst of my Anglophile theory.

There’s also a strange moment where Zoot explains that Animal is looking a little crazed because he’s “upset about missing the Rembrandt exhibit at the National Gallery”, which Animal then corrects him: it was Renoir! However, in contrast to both claims, on the soundtrack Zoot says Monet. Despite including a number of dialogue jokes interspersed throughout its three minutes and three second, the track on the official soundtrack is much more tightly edited than the song as it appears in the film, which contains a number of other minor digressions and gags. But Monet and Rembrandt both have the same number of distinct syllables, and it is a mystery as to why one was funnier and/or more identifiable in one version than in its parallel.

(Speaking of the Happiness Hotel, this is as good a place as any to point out that Rizzo is mentioned by name after checking Fozzie, Kermit, and Gonzo into their room. I thought he was just one of a series of unnamed bellhop rats in Caper and was finally named in his introduction Manhattan, but I find I was incorrect.)

The plot moves on to the introduction of Piggy, Lady Holiday, Carla, Marla, and Darla — the trio of whom cleverly have their initials on their beret pins for easy identification — and the implication that we’re going to be introduced to Nicky Holiday, as there’s a throwaway moment where someone is delivering a gross of floral socks to an office. We’ve seen the socks in the opening number… are we supposed to make the connection? It feels like a plot thread that was filmed and partially edited out, so that there’s a payoff that never appears in the final cut of the film. But the camera lingers on his ankles twice, the second time as he unlocks the back door so the models can sneak in and linger about during the dance number and presumably help in the theft in a manner we don’t witness.

Nicky’s introduction is also odd. Grodin plays him as comically insouciant, jigging and jiving like he’s made of rubber, and Diana Rigg’s exposition does little that she hasn’t done with Piggy earlier, except that now Grodin is in shot while it happens. I feel like his performance as society wastrel may be too good, and filmmakers were worried that audiences wouldn’t connect him to the sinister man in the dark hat in the beginning chaos.

But the real joy of his character is the aspect of his arc where he falls in love with Miss Piggy. I mean, it also means that we get not just one, but THREE Piggy & Kermit In Love musical numbers, but at least two of them are interesting Hollywood musical number pastiches. The last is seemingly just an exercise in upping the number of Muppets riding bicycles from one, just Kermit, in The Muppet Movie, to pretty much all of them at the end of “Couldn’t We Ride”, perhaps the most lugubrious, syrupy Muppet number every recorded. I’m typing this on a humid, early summer day, and just the memory of that song is causing the dew point of the air around me to increase. But the other two numbers, despite all coming in too quick of succession from each other, are solid mixes of satires of romantic tropes with clever, showy dance numbers. And the essential inclusion of Nicky as being instantly infatuated with Miss Piggy is a fun upending of the way in which Piggy is so dreamily set on Kermit. It gives the audience an idea that perhaps Kermit should want to be with her, if, after all, other people find her so instantly compelling.

One of my brother’s notes to me about why he liked Muppets Take Manhattan was that he “like Animal’s ‘Hashtag Me Too’ moment”. When I rewatched the film, I kept an eye out for what he meant. I remain not entirely sure. I suspect that he’s confusing the part in Muppets From Space where Animal sheepishly returns from having chased the female security guard played by Kathy Griffin, having discovered that she is more of an aggressor than he is. Either way, it’s not quite the same thing. What is politically resonant with power and sexual politics is the way in which Nicky takes Piggy’s rejection of him. Grodin’s character is pursuing and pressuring Piggy in her workplace, and she quickly turns and introduces her “special friend” Kermit in an attempt to convince Holiday that she’s taken — the only kind of rebuff that a certain kind of predator would understand. He then effectively tells her, because of her refusal of his love, than she will pay the price for spurning his affection.

She (or director Henson) plays it off lightly, but there’s some actual menace in there that has played out in life as the kind of jilted danger that motivates men who believe they deserve what they desire. The fact that it works on both a character and a resonant level when being played to and by a hunk of foam rubber is a strong testament to the honesty of the moment.

To then undercut that moment, it is quickly followed up by a dumb joke that has become enmeshed with my personality my entire life. As Kermit and Piggy leave, Marla (I think) sidles over to Nicky and says:

Which are lyrics from a 1931 song that has been popularized by Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters, amongst others. Now, despite fifteen minutes of research on YouTube just now, I am not and have never been familiar with this song. However, this moment consistently made me cackle with glee because it was so obvious that the dialogue was song lyrics, despite the fact that I had no idea what the original song was. The cadence, the formality, and the mirrored language made it a quotation, even if I didn’t know what was being quoted. And this has been the source of a long-running game in my life: if someone uses a word or a phrase that has been part of the lyrics to a song, I will take those lyrics and speak them, in rhythm, but without melody as if they made sense in the conversation.

So, as a totally random example, if someone said that they thought the rough-housing at the playground was getting a little physical, I would unhelpfully reply, “No, let’s get physical. Phys-i-cal. I wanna get physical. Let’s get, ah, physical.” Much to the annoyance and consternation of my companions, who are either less than bemused by my non-sequitur or who now have a song stuck in their head that they had no desire to be idly humming for the next fifteen minutes.

It’s one of my favorite bits. I’ve been running through Muppet lyrics in my head trying to figure out if there are any common turns of phrase that would or have prompted me to use any of the more popular Muppet tunes in this way. Something Muppet-centric would certainly make a better example and be less annoying — sorry, Olivia — but nothing really jumps out at me. Regardless, it’s another — personal, not objective or critical — why the film is chief amongst my favorites.

DORCAS: Am I boring you?

I’ve already mentioned the Anglophilia, so it’s probably redundant to state that I was somewhat of a Monty Python nerd. The John Cleese episode of The Muppet Show is an absolute pinnacle of the form, existing right alongside the Steve Martin ep as playing with the tension of being a guest on a variety show. The Wikia entry on the Cleese episode cites Of Muppets and Men as stating that Cleese helped write his episode, and whether that was just to make his own dialogue sound more like him, or whether he actually assisted in the structure and punchlines of his skits is left unrecorded. I hope it was a collaboration and not ego, because I do believe that Cleese is (or, at least, has been — Twitter spats being what they currently are, one wonders how close to cancellation Cleese might be) good at both capitalizing upon and puncturing the perception of his public persona (if you’ll excuse the excessive alliteration).

Some of the writing in this scene feels very much like Cleese was allowed to structure or script his own dialogue, as well as being allowed to manage his own timing. Neville’s long, confused pauses and hemming and hawing do little to heighten the dramatic tension, but do help in heightening Piggy’s utter frustration — although how she planned on having them answer the door and then leaving with Kermit is best not dwelled upon. The references to “calf’s foot jelly” and quails eggs, and the fact that he lovingly calls his wife “my little Armada” feel like Cleese’s writing and frame of reference, as well as the odd little detail that his wife has, apparently since their marriage, never left the house. It’s perhaps the longest cameo in a Muppet film, even including the utterly bizarre Peter Falk appearance that follows, where Falk’s stumblebum channels Sesame Street‘s Lefty the Salesman and tries to sell Kermit a watch after a lengthy personal digression that rivals most of the content of this blog entry.

Shortly thereafter, the film begins to fall apart. I mean, we get the “What color are their hands now?” quote-unquote joke THREE times, which doesn’t feel like either a running gag or a comment on Beauregard’s general level of focus, but just that they we’re sure when they were going to use the joke, and they left both instances of it in accidentally. This sense of haphazard editing shows up as well with the Muppet gang trying to break into the Mallory Gallery. Animal is chewing through the wrought-iron gates, when guard dogs scare them away. We cut to Piggy in conversation with Pete Ustinov in a continuation of a scene we didn’t see. After Ustinov’s confirmation of his cameo with Oscar the Grouch (a solid bit), we have Piggy doing a sudden Smokey and the Bandit pastiche — ecause, again, what a London-based romantic caper comedy needs is more down-home Americana — and then we cut back to the Gallery, where we again are in the middle of a pizza-based guard distraction scene that has cut out any set-up.

Putting aside the fact that, in retrospect, if I am to believe Douglas Adams in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, pizza delivery in the UK was still very much not a thing by 1987, this is less a matter of jokes than it is one of pacing. The cutting between the Muppets, the crooks, Piggy, the Muppets, each scene getting a little gag or a tiny moment, but mostly the film ceases at this point to be doing anything except commenting on the nature of heist films. The fashion thieves have their blacks suits and their completely implausible laser-based lock-picks, while our Muppet protagonists have their Groucho glasses and Rowlf’s ability to talk to the guard dogs. It’s not really a subversion of the ’70s glitz-tech that tended to be used to hand-wave plot inconvenience — it all feels very Roger Moore, fairly or unfairly — because it’s not an Ocean’s Twelve scenario, where the Muppets are trying to steal the same thing, but only have rubber-chicken technology to approximate what’s needed for the heist. There are no parallel stakes. So it doesn’t feels like satire, just a casual sideswipe.

Similarly, Piggy’s drive to the Mallory Gallery is beset with tiny little set-backs which are not additive or decinstructive. They don’t increase the tension of will she get there in time, because each one is instantly resolved without the film giving us a moment of despair. Which also makes the magical resolution of each one feel completely unearned, but also not a commentary on the way in which stories and audiences conspire to have everything fall into place. There’s a bit where Piggy, riding a stunt cycle, in the national spirit of momentarily being re-obsessed with Evel Knievel (see Marvel’s Team America for a contemporary reference, or Duke Caboom in Toy Story 4 for a nostalgic one) says to camera, “Well, you wanted excitement.”

It’s the penultimate wall-breaking moment in the film, and neither it nor the last one really work. The film ends with the reason for the fabulous Baseball diamond called what it is, with everyone tossing it around, and the stakes falling out the window. It’s a great piece of antic silliness, and the addition of Louis Kazagger for The World of Muppet Sports never fails to make my heart zing with recognition. The action, however, doesn’t work, and the whooshing of the diamond across the screen has no recognizable physics behind it. Whether this is because Henson didn’t want to block the scene like actual gameplay, or whether the mechanics of happing the Muppets actually throw and catch was too difficult is unclear. The sudden reestablishment of a moment of tension with Nicky having both the diamond and Kermit as hostage both undercuts the successful lunacy and fails to establish, again, any real stakes.

It’s a funny line, but think how much more powerful it would be, as would Piggy’s sudden action appearance of smashing through the window on the motorcycle, if it had been personal, if it had been because of the love triangle. There’s a chance we would have actually worried that Nicky would have done something. If we’ve basically decided at this point that Kermit is no longer Kermit playing a reporter, but a character we’re supposed to worry about, then give us a reason why. Otherwise, by having Nicky have no reason for doing what he’s doing, then there’s no reason for him to actually shoot Kermit, let alone “Kermit”, and so to have the baseball game — gasp! — come to a sudden end doesn’t change anything.

It’s a muddle. It’s the same metafictional challenge that Adaptation suffered — if none of this is real, and if stories are clichés, then how can I take this seriously?

Luckily, there have been enough great gags — goodness, my notes are full of ones I haven’t mentioned yet: “Photography’s an art…”, “Bear wear hats…”, “You can’t even sing; your voice was dubbed!” — that taking it seriously or even expecting thematic consistency falls by the wayside. The film’s final impressions are not its strongest, but the highs of the journey to get there are sufficient that my last impression is not what I end up taking away from it. So, for a RATING: between Carla, Darla, and Marla, we choose DARLA, because while she’s the middle one, I still don’t immediately know which one she is, and so I’m content with not actually knowing what that rating means.

NEXT: Forty years ago, the film that started it all ends this series, and this blog can go back to its standard inactivity. Thank goodness.

 

Related Links:
The film opens with Animal eating the Lord Grade logo, as a spoof of the lion in the MGM arch. This is part of a long tradition of spoofs, including, since I’ve mentioned Monty Python, Terry Gilliam’s 20th Century Frog. A collection of many such unsubtle nods can be found here.

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