Lest anyone be worried that the folks at the Jim Henson Co. were getting lazy, content to remake classic tales with puppets, along comes "Muppets From Space." Smart and winning, this sixth Muppet feature film comes closest to recapturing the pure joy of the 1979 original, "The Muppet Movie." Kids will like it; parents who grew up with the Muppets may like it even more.
Gonzo--that strange hook-nosed creature referred to as a "whatever" in earlier films--is at the center of this adventure. When he begins to receive messages from outer space though his breakfast cereal, he determines that he is, in fact, an alien. He tries to contact his distant relations, but is quickly intercepted by K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), who heads a secret government agency. It's up to Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Rizzo the Rat and Animal to rescue him.
In only 82 minutes, "Muppets From Space" manages more plot than the last four Muppet films combined--largely because it has dropped the song-and-dance numbers. Instead, the movie is set to an infectious funk beat by the Commodores, James Brown, the O'Jays, and Earth Wind and Fire. It's a surprising fit and somehow adds to the Muppets' timeless-yet-modern quality.
Also, unlike "The Muppet Christmas Carol" and "Muppet Treasure Island," in which the Muppets were characters within characters (e.g. Kermit as Bob Cratchit), here they are back to being themselves. They make their way in the world, working odd jobs, living together in a large boarding house. All the favorites are there as well, if only for a minute: The Swedish Chef cooks in the kitchen and Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker cook up experiments in the basement. (Sadly missing, for some reason, is Gonzo's longtime chicken girlfriend, Camilla.)
The scene-stealer is a new addition to the Muppet clan, a smart-mouthed Spanish shrimp named Pepe, who hollers, "I am not a shrimp! I am a king prawn!" Actor Bill Barretta, who performs Pepe and Bobo the Bear, gives both characters a distinct edge that complements the more familiar Muppets.
As K. Edgar Singer, Tambor plays well with the Muppets, especially Bobo, his giant brown-nosing underling. Andie MacDowell, too, is an appropriate rival for Miss Piggy--attractive and assertive.
None of the other human cameos quite measures up--David Arquette, Kathy Griffin, Ray Liotta, Hollywood (formerly Hulk) Hogan, Pat Hingle. Some are better in their bit parts than others, but it's a far cry from "The Muppet Movie"--made at the height of the popularity of "The Muppet Show"--in which brief appearances by Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Cloris Leachman and Orson Welles made each scene a potential surprise. In addition, Steve Martin, Mel Brooks and Dom DeLuise added humor that was goofy for the kids, but nuanced for the grown-ups. The jokes, likewise, aren't quite as adult. But director Tim Hill--making his feature debut--is subtly funny with his visual references to "Close Encounter of the Third Kind," "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial" and "The X-Files," all clearly put in for mom and dad.
Twenty years after "The Muppet Movie" and 30 after the beginning of "Sesame Street," there is still life in these creations of felt, foam rubber and fake fur. With care, they will easily entertain and educate a third or fourth generation of children. The magic is back.
* MPAA rating: G. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.
'Muppets From Space'
Dave Goelz: Gonzo, Bunsen Honeydew
Steve Whitmire: Kermit, Rizzo, Beaker
Bill Barretta: Bobo, Pepe the Prawn
Jerry Nelson: Robin, Statler, Ubergonzo
Brian Henson: Dr. Phil Van Neuter
Kevin Clash: Clifford
Frank Oz: Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Animal
Jeffrey Tambor: K. Edgar Singer
A Jim Henson Pictures/Columbia Pictures production. Director Tim Hill. Screenwriters Jerry Juhl and Joseph Mazzarino and Ken Kaufman. Producers Brian Henson, Martin G. Baker. Executive producers Kristine Belson, Stephanie Allain. Co-producers Timothy M. Bourne, Alex Rockwell. Director of photography Alan Caso. Production designer Stephen Marsh. Editors Michael A. Stevenson, Richard Pearson. Costume designer Polly Smith. Music Jamshied Sharifi. Casting Michael Fenton and Allison Cowitt. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes.