Spielberg fans will appreciate allusions to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T., but kids may wish that the film offered more space action.

James Plath's picture

"Muppets From Space" could have been titled "Close Encounters of the Muppet Kind," because it comes closer to Steven Spielberg's extraterrestrial storyline than the title implies. In fact, when this film played in the theaters, my young son repeatedly leaned over to ask, reminiscent of those "Are we there yet?" car-trip torments, "When are we going to see the Muppets from space?"

Well, if your youngsters have visions of spaceships and distant planets and all sorts of Muppet aliens, they're not going to find them here. This is an earthbound movie which features the usual Muppet suspects and the usual celebrity guests. As with most Muppet movies, it's a quest story, with a glum Gonzo feeling freakish because he's the only creature of his kind. After a dream in which Noah denied him entrance onto the ark and a bowl of alphabet cereal later tells him to watch the sky, Gonzo begins to think he's an alien who, like "E.T." (that other Spielberg space foray) was left behind. Naturally, the other Muppets, for all their love of Gonzo, are doubters until a sensationalistic reporter stirs things up and a nut case from a secret government agency assigned the task of proving or disproving the existence of aliens enters the picture. The lead scientist at COVNET (Jeffrey Tambor) sends some M.I.B. types to kidnap Gonzo after he appears on TV telling everyone he's an alien, and the stage is set for another Muppet road trip. Together, the gang tries to spring Gonzo and Rizzo from the secret installation (How secret can it be if the Muppets can find it?), while hordes of people assemble to welcome the aliens as people congregated on a high mountain in "Close Encounters."

In a way, it's a familiar plot, only this time—and I can't put my finger on exactly why—the Muppet mayhem doesn't have the same sustained high energy and crisp writing. Things drag, especially mid-movie. The most energy comes from a funkified soundtrack that includes tunes by The Commodores, George Clinton, The Isley Brothers, James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, and The O'Jays. Even Tambor, who's been hilarious in "Arrested Development," seems to lack energy, perhaps because he's as heavy in this film as I've seen him. That said, the other celebs also seem to lack pizzazz. Ray Liotta seems almost numb as a security guard, Pat Hingle tones it down as the crusty general who tells Tambor's character that he wants results, Kathy Givins isn't all that energized as a guard who encounters the partially visible Fozzie, Andie MacDowell doesn't have much of a chance to stretch her wings as the UFO reporter, and Hulk Hogan is predictably stiff in his brief segment. Only Rob Schneider as Noah and David Arquette as a mad tormentor of rats seem full of life.

Muppeteer Dave Goelz gets a workout this time around, handling not only the film's star, Gonzo, but Dr. Bunsen Honeydew (who gets plenty of air time), Waldorf, and The Birdman. Steve Whitmire inherited Kermit from the late Jim Henson, and also brings rizzo, Beaker, and Cosmic fish #1 to life, while Phil Barretta does Pepe the Prawn, Bobo as Rentro, Bubba the Rat, Johnny Fiama, and Cosmic Fish #2, Jerry Nelson handles obin, Statler and Ubergonzo, Brian Henson manages Dr. Phil Van Neuter and Sal Minella, Kevin Clash does Clifford, and old master Frank Oz brings Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, and Sam eagle to life.

The key for Muppet movies has always been in the level of interaction between the puppets and live actors, with the most successful having actors playing off the furry critters as if they were flesh-and-blood. There was always something incongruous about a Muppet working or playing side-by-side with a human, but most of the time it worked. This time, some of the characters seem as much of a fish out of water as the cosmic creatures Gonzo meets in his dream. One sore-thumb stand-out is a human-sized bear that seems to be Tambor's #2 at the agency, but he mostly stands around or has as much relevant activity as those animatrons at pizza parlors. On the flipside, Pepe the Prawn seems almost too distinctive so that he doesn't really blend into the Muppet group.

Director Tim Hill just seems to leave some scenes (like gonzo mowing a message into his lawn) go on way too long, while not exploring the dramatic or comedic potential enough in other scenes. When the fuzzball gang gets to the COVNET headquarters the action should intensify, but oddly enough, things seem to bog down. Same with the arrival, finally, of the aliens. What the writers did with all that potential was a huge disappointment. It's as if they ignored the potential of the script's premise and leaned on the crutch of a tried-and-true technique: when in doubt, hey, let's have everyone SING! The result is a film that's simply not as well-conceived, well-written, well-paced, well-performed, or well-sustained as some of the best Muppet films.

"Muppets in Space" is featured in the new "Muppet Movies 3-Pack," along with "The Muppets Take Manhattan" and "Kermit's Swamp Years."

Video: There's no widescreen option this time, which suggests that the original theatrical presentation may have been letterboxed. It's presented in 1.33:1 ratio, which, stretched to fit today's widescreen televisions, really causes some distortion on the edges. Generally, though the quality is very good, with the kind of bright colors we've come to expect from the Henson people.

Audio: Soundtrack options are English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 Surround, with the 5.1 spreading the sound across the speakers in pretty vibrant fashion. The 2.0 doesn't have the same separation, and since there's so much ambient noise and so many Foley FX my guess is the 2.0 won't get much play.

Extras: For a Muppet disc, this one is pretty loaded, though the extras could be stronger. Director Tim Hill does a commentary with Kermit, Gonzo, and Rizzo, and it's cute that we see drawn silhouettes of the figures watching the film, as if they were seated in the theater in front of us. But after a while, you almost wish the critters would disappear so we could get a real commentary instead of one that's partly done in character. There's an outtakes real with seven staged bloopers from the Muppets, a live video ("Shining Star") by the Dust Brothers featuring Jeymes, along with production notes, the original trailer, and the usual smattering of previews.

Bottom Line: Spielberg fans will appreciate allusions to "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T.," but kids may wish that the film offered more space action, and their parents might wonder, as I did, why a film with so much on-paper potential actually drags in some places and disappoints in others.


Film Value