Muppets From Space

Directed by Tim Hill

Jul 14, 1999 at 4:00 am

Even as the Muppets continue to be one of the great class acts in the often tacky annals of children's films, it's sad to say that their sixth feature film, Muppets from Space, is something of a disappointment in comparison to their earlier outings.

Jim Henson Pictures has taken time and care with the series, turning out one film every three or four years, not counting one eight-year hiatus, which was presumably in part the result of the death of founder Jim Henson.

The two movies following that hiatus — The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island — were, unlike their predecessors, loosely adapted from classics. With Muppets from Space, the filmmakers have eschewed preexisting source material in favor of a story that draws on E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind and, in a stretch, The Man Who Fell to Earth. The result is a less cohesive, more hackneyed plot.

The idea here is that Gonzo (voice by Dave Goelz) is mooning over his lack of family — he being the only Gonzo-like creature on Earth. He starts receiving a series of mysterious messages, à la Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, suggesting that his true family, an extraterrestrial clan of similarly hook-nosed Muppets, is coming to get him. (It's never really clear how or when Gonzo came to be marooned on Earth.) His houseful of Muppet roommates are variously amused or saddened by his new obsession.

Meanwhile, one of those roommates, Miss Piggy (voice by Frank Oz), is clawing her way, All About Eve-style, toward an anchorwoman job at the local TV station, over Shelley Snipes (Andie MacDowell), the current anchorwoman, who is no less of a prima donna than the Divine Miss P. Her connection to Gonzo gives her just the inside line she needs for an exclusive scoop.

Of course, as in all such movies, an evil government agency, headed by the pathetic K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), sets out to kidnap Gonzo for its own nefarious purposes.

All of this may play better for kids than adults, which hasn't necessarily been the case with the earlier Muppet movies. There was a zany adult consciousness behind those films that seems lacking here. Certainly the number of jokes that depend in part on our common cultural knowledge (e.g., all the references to the original books in Treasure Island and Christmas Carol) is way lower. (On the other hand, what was apparently a Dawson's Creek allusion/cameo zinged right past me.)

There are plenty of effective gags here — simply not of the density or brilliance of other Muppet movies. It's impossible to securely place the blame for this letdown, though it must be noted that first-time helmer Tim Hill is following in the estimable footsteps of Jim Henson, Frank Oz and Brian Henson, all of whom had much stronger ties to Muppet history.

But the problems really may not be Hill's fault. Brian Henson participated as both producer and performer and therefore gets some of the responsibility.

There is no reason to think that the Muppet franchise is beginning some sort of slide into mediocrity. This may well be a simple fluke — a production that for any number of reasons fell short of expectations. And even a second-rate Muppet movie is more fun than most G-rated films and, for that matter, most adult comedies.