Review: 'Muppets from Space' -- It's not easy being green
August 2, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- There's not much that can be done about it, of course, but it's terribly disconcerting to hear someone other than Jim Henson supplying the voice of Kermit the Frog.
Even if you're fully grown, Kermit's familiar ping-pong ball eyes and bemused, squinched-up face are still sort of comforting. You have a history with this piece of felt. Then he opens his mouth and you're hit with an eerily pitched vocal inflection that sounds exactly like someone trying to sound like Kermit the Frog.
It's not enough to give you an ulcer, but consistency is an important thing when it comes to childhood icons. To me, the real Charlie Brown is the one you hear on the Christmas special every year. Any variation makes him a big-headed charlatan in a striped shirt.
That's the vibe that pretty much ruins "Muppets from Space," the latest film starring those affable wackos who thoughtfully taught us how to count back in the 1970s. It's a skill that came in handy later on when purchasing "Sesame Street" merchandise for our children. "Today's episode is brought to you by the number 47 ... dollars."
But there's also a rhythmic problem here that's a little more difficult to put your finger on. There's a fitful awkwardness to the proceedings that make you feel like you're watching the Muppet touring company rather than the real thing. It's like seeing "A Chorus Line" at a civic center in Arkansas.
"Muppets from Space" -- which claims to deal with Gonzo's attempts to come into contact with his otherworldly relatives -- never establishes a decent sense of purpose. It just sort of chugs along on previously generated goodwill.
The Muppet movies that were made with Jim Henson and Frank Oz at the helm all those years ago weren't masterpieces of world cinema, to be sure, but at least they conveyed the impression of actually heading somewhere while everyone acted ridiculous. And the big-name co-stars (people like Steve Martin, Bob Hope and Orson Welles) chipped in with real comic pizzazz.
"Muppets from Space," on the other hand, is more like a string of TV sketches, with the degree of success resting almost solely on the cleverness of the verbal interplay. The individual Muppets' personalities are all basically in place, but not much is done with them. They mostly crack jokes and walk funny, in that limp-armed, bouncy sort of way that's so indicative of the Muppet genus.
And the guest stars are not starry enough to constitute actual "guests." Does anybody really care to see if Hulk Hogan can interact with a sock puppet and maintain his dignity? Does Hulk Hogan have any dignity left to maintain?
The lone human performance that actually registers is by Jeffrey Tambor. He plays a shady government agent who kidnaps Gonzo when he discovers that aliens have been talking to the crooked-beaked one by spelling out messages with his alphabet-shaped breakfast cereal.
Space travel and inertia
The initial burst of freaky activity bodes well for the rest of the movie, but the script doesn't follow through. The highlight is a moment when Gonzo gets beamed to the far reaches of the galaxy for an informal conference with a couple of highly evolved "cosmic fish." They're really smart fish, and they swim around in space dispensing wisdom to those who need it. (Remember, gang: don't eat the brown acid.)
Then the film slowly peters out for the next hour, with Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and a new character who looks like a French crayfish, creeping around a government facility trying to get Gonzo back from Tambor.
A few of the gags are bull's-eyes, but the rest feel a great deal like time fillers, something you never suspected in the older films. Even a sequence in which the normally reliable Miss Piggy attempts to take over a "Hard Copy"-like news show that's being anchored by Andie MacDowell doesn't work very well -- although for the first time in ages, MacDowell isn't out of her depth.
It's difficult to write something like this and walk away with a modicum of self-respect, but Miss Piggy seems bored. You know, going through the motions to bring home some bacon.
The most horrifying sequence in "Muppets from Space" is a "Reservoir Dogs" takeoff in which Kermit ties Fozzie to a chair and tortures him with a straight razor. Just kidding. It's actually fine for even the youngest of young children, who should laugh a bit more than you will. Rated G. 87 minutes.
And just for the record, that's longtime Muppets stalwart Steve Whitmire who's taken on the difficult task of voicing Kermit since Jim Henson's death in 1990. Whitmire's first tour-de-Kermit was in the 1992 film, "The Muppet Christmas Carol."
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