This 1999 cinematic outing by the Muppets, it’s last until tomorrow’s revival, feels like the black sheep of the Muppet movie line-up. Since Henson’s death in 1990, the Muppets had starred in two feature films and an updated version of The Muppet Show (titled Muppets Tonight), and yet they continued to lose relevancy. A part of this is that there hadn’t been a long enough gap for nostalgia to set in. Another part is that the prevailing trend in moviemaking at the time was deeply entrenched in seeing what-CGI-could-do-for-us. Independence Day, Armageddon, The Matrix, and more gave us movie spectacle at the expense of charm. At the time we were all too happy to see where that would take us.
It didn’t help that this movie came out only a couple months after The Phantom Menace appeared in theaters. We were taking space adventure very seriously at that point. Star Wars was back. Space was for epic saga and not a playground for silliness. (Which was a bit ironic considering that the Phantom Menace counted a Muppet as a secondary character and that Lucas had been instrumental in the creation of Labyrinth.)
I preface with all of this because Muppets From Space was, and is, considered a failure. It failed to earn back it’s $24 million budget and was largely ignored by Muppet fans and casual moviegoers alike. Which is a shame, because this is the most entertaining Muppet film since, say it with me now, The Great Muppet Caper, and bears all the hallmarks of classic Muppet movies.
To my mind, Muppets From Space comes the closest to recapturing the humor perfected in The Great Muppet Caper, although the former leans a lot more on cheaper, lazier jokes. Still, even in these it manages to make character moments shine. The movie’s initial music number begins with everyone waking to the routine of “Brickhouse,” and while this musical choice was dated before the movie even hit theaters, it’s still charming to watch Animal sort through everyone’s morning routine. Fozzie occupies the shower in a raincoat that covers him entirely, yet he still shrieks when Animal bursts in on him. Sweetums lurks in the tub, forcibly washing penguins with a look of grave concern. Sam the Eagle exercises with Gonzo’s chickens and Beaker is doing impossible things with a Q-tip. The Muppets are all here, going about their business, the humor stemming from their deeply idiosyncratic routines rather than any camera mugging.
This kind of character humor repeats throughout the film as we meet new characters, from the lab rats Rizzo gets trapped with (you have never seen a rat sell a beating so hilariously as the one threatened to David Arquette), to the random faux Rat Pack duo that crash Gonzo’s party, to Jeffrey Tambor and his assistant bear/lifemate Rentro. Tambor is in a class of his own here, giving what could very well be the funniest human performance in any Muppet movie ever. (Joan Rivers from Muppets Take Manhattan being a close second.) Rentro himself is a low-key cut-up who bumbles silently and loads his speech with pregnant pauses, becoming a bit of a breakout character in the process. One of my favorite jokes in the film involves him simply mishearing his boss:
The film centers Gonzo experiencing an emotional crisis in not knowing what he is or where he comes from. (The movie opens with him being rejected from getting on Noah’s Ark and is perhaps more unsettling that the film’s directors intended, ending as it does with Gonzo screaming to the heavens as he faces imminent drowning.) And while fans seem to be split on whether revealing Gonzo’s origins is a good or bad thing, to me this is firmly in keeping with the Muppet movies’ penchant for depicting one’s life at different stages of maturation.
Whereas a film like Muppets Take Manhattan shows Kermit and company trying to tackle a post-collegiate life that doesn’t measure up to their dreams, Muppets From Space shows them firmly entrenched in their adult identities and chosen desires. The fact that Gonzo still lags behind in this regard echoes the same issues one faces as a working adult in one’s 20s. It’s tough to watch your friends succeed in life at a quicker pace than you, and just as tough to be the one succeeding while watching your friends struggle for the smallest recognition.
The struggles here aren’t the same, but the angst and the tension they leave are comparable. Gonzo’s quest taps into this deeply, so when he receives the smallest shred of info regarding his origins, he leaps wholeheartedly at the chance to make contact. Something which Pepe the Prawn and Rizzo exploit at one point:
In a deeper sense, Gonzo is searching for confirmation that the identity he has forged for himself is in keeping with his origins. He, of course, finds that confirmation — there’s not much of a movie if he doesn’t — and after a quick dance number he is given a choice as to how he wants to move forward. It’s something Gonzo hadn’t considered during his quest. Once he finds out who he is, where does he then belong? This again echoes the maturity of one developing their own adult life. At what point do you break off from your family’s traditions and start your own? At what point do you realize you have not one, but two families: one of blood, and one forged through long friendship?
Gonzo’s moment of realization comes at the end of his journey and the answer is obvious. His people are his people, but the Muppets have always been his family. Here is where he belongs.
While not quite reaching the standards of the Muppet movies from the 70s and 80s, Muppets From Space is not the tepid footnote that it seems. Revisit it if you get the chance. In my opinion, putting a name to Gonzo’s species is worth this kind of story, especially since it’s told amusingly. But even if you don’t think so, you can still have it your way. The continuity of the Muppets has never been strict. Are Kermit and Miss Piggy married? We don’t know. Is Gonzo really an alien? After this long, we don’t know. You are welcome to believe whatever you choose.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com and wishes an office bear was actually a good idea.