Muppets from Space

Muppets From SpaceSynopsis: Space. It’s Not As Deep As You Think.

The Muppets are back in a new zany comedy, Muppets From Space. The Muppets embark on a hilarious extraterrestrial adventure in hopes of finding out about Gonzo’s past, and discover that Gonzo’s family members are aliens from a distant planet!

Gonzo then gets a message that his relatives are coming for a visit… from outer space! But when word gets out on Miss Piggy’s talk show, UFP Mania, that the friendly aliens are coming, a secret government agency led by K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor) captures Gonzo and goes to great lengths to learn when his extra-terrestrial family will arrive.

Now only the Muppets, led by Kermit and Miss Piggy, can save Gonzo and make the world safe for a friendly alien invasion!

Muppets From Space (featuring Andie MacDowell, Ray Liotta and David Arquette, among others) is a star-studded close encounter with far-out fun!

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Muppets from Space 7.5

eyelights: its quirky plot. Gonzo. its humour. its many cameos.
eyesores: its lagging final act.

Gonzo: “I had that weird dream again.”
Rizzo the Rat: “The one with the goat and the dwarf and the jar of peanut butter?”

The nineties were a dire time for Muppets fans such as myself: their most recent films had not exactly been box office triumphs, giving the impression that their star was fading. But it was creatively where they seemed adrift the most: their last two movies displayed little of the traditional Muppet magic, instead playing dress-up in other people’s clothes. Cute, but not really inspiring.

Then came 1999’s ‘Muppets from Space’.

Rushed into cinemas by Columbia Pictures, who wanted to turn it into a bankable summer movie, the film was released almost a year ahead of schedule, hobbling Jim Henson Pictures’ efforts at reclaiming the Muppets’ position in audiences’ hearts. Inevitably, it was considered a critical and commercial flop at the time. Even the creative forces behind it were disappointed with the end result.

There wouldn’t be another big screen Muppet film until 2011’s ‘The Muppets’.

And yet, ‘Muppets from Space’ is the closest thing to a Muppet movie since 1984’s ‘Muppets take Manhattan’. It features all of the key and secondary Muppet characters (including the new ones from ‘Muppets Tonight’), it is Muppet-centric (i.e. they are the stars of the show), it is zany and quirky, and it is chock full of notable cameos. The only thing missing are the Muppets’ original songs.

Needless to say, for all its flaws, I am a fan. And one of its few champions.

‘Muppets from Space’ revolves around the notion that Gonzo is a “whatever”. He doesn’t know what he is and wants to belong; he feels lonely. It’s a theme not so dissimilar from that of ‘Follow that Bird‘, except that it’s done from a more mature perspective. Here, Gonzo is suddenly contacted by aliens, who think that they may be related and announce their intention to come visit him.

Obsessed with the idea that he might finally find out who/what he is, and perhaps even meet his family, he begins to do all sorts of erratic things in preparation for their arrival – much to the concern (and amusement) of the other Muppets. Meanwhile, C.O.V.E.N.E.T., a secret government agency that monitors space for alien life forms, catches wind of this upcoming visit and intervenes.

The film begins with an emotionally potent moment: Gonzo’s nightmare. In it, Gonzo dreams that Noah will not let him on the Ark because there aren’t two of them (Noah is sympathetic enough to offer him a small black umbrella, however). Distraught by the terrifying images in his mind, Gonzo wakes up feeling anxious, alone in the world. Rizzo, his closest friend, doesn’t help: he’s too much of a rat for that.

The film isn’t all rainy showers and grim thoughts, thankfully: immediately thereafter, we are treated to an extended sequence in which all the Muppets (living under the same roof, with Kermit as the natural head of the household) get up and prepare themselves for the day ahead – to the tune of “Brick House”. It’s a delightful moment, and one of the most amusing moments of the film. I was beaming throughout.

‘Muppets from Space’ is a very nice production. Rich in details, with shelves filled with books, small picture frames, …etc. That whole opening sequence showed us how the Muppets cohabit together, how they share limited resources, and sets up a really nice home base for all of them. I would gladly see this house featured in future pictures – it seems like a reasonable set up for this wacky crew.

This sequence also served the purpose of reacquainting ourselves with many of the characters – some of which have barely been seen on the screen in well over a decade. But there are also new ones in this picture, and they are all  hits: Pepe the King Prawn, Bobo the Bear and Dr. Phil Van Neuter are all hilarious in their own respective ways, while Clifford is a cool cat who adds his own touch.

While ‘Muppets from Space’ is hardly as funny as some of the previous Muppet outings, it has its fair share of laughs; I must admit that I probably smiled from start to finish – when I wasn’t bursting out, of course. The jokes and gags are better than ever (ex: Gonzo’s lawnmower rides, the invisible duck sequences, …etc.), it’s just that the pace isn’t nearly as furious; the gags are more spaced out.

But it’s a significant improvement over ‘The Muppets Take Manhattan‘ and ‘Muppet Treasure Island‘.

Another key difference, aside from the comedic pace, is that ‘Muppets from Space’ isn’t remotely as meta-referential as the others (if at all – although I may have missed a subtle one or two). But it does make amusing pop culture references along the way, not notably to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘ (in the “Watch the Sky” segment, and also in the initial encounter with the aliens, on the beach).

What surprised me with this viewing, my first in many years, is just how good ‘Muppets from Space’ would look in 3D. What spawned this notion was the moment when Gonzo gets hit by lightning, which already shows significant depth. Between that, the space sequences, and just the fact that Muppets would look great in 3D, I think that a conversion would be well worth it should someone decide to attempt it.

Unfortunately, where the film’s visuals fall off the map is with the CGI elements, which don’t look very good at all. I mean, we’re talking about 1999 computer graphics, here, but it’s also on a moderately-budgeted family film – so you can’t expect too much. Even with this in mind, the arrival of the alien beacon was quite an eyesore, and there a number of flourishes that really didn’t have the gusto they should have had.

Furthermore, the last 1/3 of the picture stalls completely: the moment that the Muppets gang rescues Gonzo, the picture devolves into a half-hearted celebration that no amount of jubilant extras can fix. Basically, we spend that last part sitting around on the beach, waiting for the aliens. And their arrival? Underwhelming: the special effects weren’t special, and the aliens were as bland as moon dust.

Thankfully, ‘Muppets from Space’ managed to eke out a couple of nice moments in its last couple of minutes: The Muppets all end up on the roof of their house, looking at the stars together, which is a sweet sight indeed. And then there’s the first part of the end credits, which consists of pretty trippy kaleidoscopic images of the Muppets’ faces – to the tune of “Shining Star” (featuring a sweet interpolation of “The Muppet Show Theme”) ?

And this is the final departure for the Muppets in ‘Muppets from Space’: the soundtrack.

Whereas all of the previous films had at least a few original Muppets songs, ‘Muppets from Space’ depends strictly on ’70s r&b/funk numbers to keep the rhythm going. One could do way worse than James Brown, George Clinton, Commodores, et al, of course, and they do add more than take away, but it’s always nice when the Muppets get the spotlight with a tongue-in-cheek number.

Still, in the grand scheme of things, as a Muppet movie, this tale of Gonzo’s existential crisis fits the bill. It may not be a landmark example of Muppets mayhem, but it has its moments, and it certainly bests its most recent predecessors in that respect. Sure, it could have been better, but that’s what you get when a  studio interferes with the creative process. The execs should have let the Muppets be.

If they had, ‘Muppets from Space’ could easily have been out of this world.

Statler: “I wonder if there really is life on other planets?”
Waldorf: “What do you care? You don’t have a life on this planet.”

Date of viewing: March 7, 2014

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