Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Final Frontier

Year: 1999
Director: Tim Hill
Cast: Dave Goelz, Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: G

The 90’s were a hard time for the Muppets. Their creator and guiding light Jim Henson had passed away and Disney was mucking about with the property, forcing it to contort into a variety of subpar literary adaptations. At this point in the marathon, I was beginning to feel pretty disheartened. The next film on the list, Muppets from Space, was one of the most maligned features of them all, and all I could do was assume the crash position and hope for the best.

So here I am on the other side, and I’ve come to tell you that not only was Muppets from Space NOT the worst film in the series, I also had a mortifying amount of fun watching it. It’s definitely a far cry from the humanistic anarchy of the Henson era, but the 90’s Muppets finally found a niche they could work with. Taking the blossoming family entertainment tropes (teen culture references, X-Files-esque secret agencies, film-ending dance parties) that would eventually lead to movies like Shrek and its ilk and injecting them with zany Muppet antics, Muppets from Space is a shallow but delightful entry in the franchise.

I live to be controversial.

In Muppets from Space, Gonzo (Dave Goelz) begins receiving alien transmissions that he believes to be from his real family. The others, knowing that he has been feeling lonely and isolated, don’t believe him, but support his efforts to find them. Well, Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and Co. do. Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) only wants to use his story to advance from TV news intern to full blown anchorpig. All the while, Gonzo is being pursued by K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), who wants to vivisect him and prove that aliens exist.

Fox Mulder, eat your heart out.

There is one major difference between Muppets from Space and the literary adaptations that came before it (other than source material and the fact that this film is inexplicably not a musical), and their names are Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) and Bobo the Bear (also Bill Barretta, bless him). These Muppets, two of my personal favorites, are the only two major characters created after Jim Henson’s death (save for the artfully bland Walter of the new movies), and they are the saving grace of 90’s Muppetdom. They’re fun, bright, and silly, and their first-ever film appearances help Muppets from Space rise above the lugubrious mush of its late period peers.

Also back in action are the traditional Muppet cameos, and though their combined wattage isn’t particularly electrifying, the stars are game to really play with the Muppet sandbox. Ray Liotta is the obvious standout as a hypnotized guard, but Kathy Griffin as a security officer who falls for Animal and David Arquette as a wicked lab rat mad scientist speak directly to my heart, if not to the culturally advanced public at large in 2016. The point is, Muppets from Space is the film that finally remembered that the great Muppet films are the ones that play it fast and loose with the porous membrane between fiction and reality and actually have fun along the way.

Muppets from Space is genuinely entertaining, what can I say? The slapstick is less facile, not feeling like it’s straining to please the lowest common denominator (Kids aren’t idiots, they’re just treated like them. It’s easy to get confused), the character dynamics are rich and elastic, and the movie maintains a sense of weightlessness, carrying a spring in its step the whole way through.

That weightless thing is kind of ironic, though, considering that the Muppets never actually go to space in this film.

Obviously, not everything is perfect. There are a startling preponderance of cheesy, punny pop culture references, but they at least feel a little more organic in the warped, transitory atmosphere of this very 90’s film. The vast blanket of pop songs spread across the feature in lieu of musical numbers does nothing to change this feeling. It’s not a classic Muppets feature, with this weird pop culture sugar buzz, but it’s a sprightly good time.

That is, for the most part. There are a couple flaws in Muppets from Space that are about as easy to overlook as Mount Everest. First of all, there are some moments that are – I’ll just come right out and say it – shockingly racist. The magenta Muppet Clifford, with his dreadlocks and his huge lips, has apparently been around for quite some time, but is pulled to the forefront here, to lust after girls named “Shenaynay” and just generally remind people that minstrelsy was a thing. He’s downright unsettling, and the space fish with cartoon Indian accents don’t help the film recover much.

Almost as bad as Clifford and pals (OK, not really, because he’s the worst thing to ever happen to a Muppet feature, and I’m including the time Kermit got hit by a car) is the finale, in which Gonzo’s family greets him with a karaoke rendition of “Celebrate!” by Kool and the Gang. It’s a travesty of biblical proportions, and about as far from “Rainbow Connection” as a hubcap. But that said, in spite of the massive problems hanging off of it like pulsing goiters, Muppets from Space is a largely charming entry in the franchise, giving it one last push before the dawn of the New Age in 2011.

TL;DR: Muppets from Space is excruciatingly 90's, but otherwise a delightful family comedy.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 933
Reviews In This Series
The Muppet Movie (Frawley, 1979)
The Great Muppet Caper (Henson, 1981)
Muppet Treasure Island (Henson, 1996)
Muppets from Space (Hill, 1999)
The Muppets (Bobin, 2011)
Muppets Most Wanted (Bobin, 2014)

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