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MUPPETS FROM SPACE

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jeffrey Tambor, F. Murray Abraham, David Arquette, Ray Liotta, Andie MacDowell
Director:  Tim Hill
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  October 26, 1999

Film **

Muppets From Space is now the first, and so far only, DVD I will heartily recommend solely on the basis of the features…namely, the most creative and entertaining use of a commentary track I’ve yet heard.  But, more on that further down.

I grew up with the Muppets, Jim Henson’s spirited puppet characters.  Like many kids, I was introduced to them through Sesame Street, then followed them right into the funny and zany Muppet Show, and on into their motion pictures, which where delightful, charming, funny, and full of good songs.  There was just something about Henson and his fellow artists…they were able to take what was essentially a puppet show and make it so transcendent that you could actually forget these weren’t real characters you were watching.  Even Kermit, a rather primitive looking puppet at best, was a frog with personality, humor, and emotion, as real as any human actor you could want to see.

Jim Henson was taken from the world way too soon, and in sad honesty, I must report that the Muppets have not been the same.  Not only did they seem to suffer from the loss of his whimsical vision and direction, but gone was the voice and performer behind Kermit.  It seems like with each new film feature, the magic seems to vanish just a little bit more.

Muppets From Space is flat out uninteresting.  Despite some choice bits of comedy along the way, it just never gets off the ground.  Part of what made Muppet stories interesting was the chemistry created as Kermit played the straight man…er, frog, amidst a sea of lunacy and chaos.  Without Henson, Kermit has been a supporting character, leaving a huge void in the center of their universe.  Since Jim’s death, Gonzo and Rizzo, performed by Dave Goelz, have been the stars of Muppet projects, but despite the fact that both are winning characters, it throws the entire premise out of balance.  They are comedy sidekicks, not protagonists.

Gone also are the memorable songs.  For this movie, there’s nothing but a soundtrack of old disco tunes, often used to fill up several minutes worth of film where nothing’s going on.

The story goes like this:  Gonzo, who has always been the butt of what-the-heck-is-he-supposed-to-be jokes, has reached a point where he feels lonely and frustrated over his lack of a pedigree.  Then one morning, he finds a cryptic message in his Cap’n Alphabet cereal telling him to watch the sky.  He must be an alien!  And his people must be trying to make contact with him!

Unfortunately, this draws the attention of one of those unnamed government agencies who specialize in extra terrestrial contact.  Gonzo is seized and taken to their headquarters to learn more about the impending “invasion”.  So naturally, it’s up to his Muppet friends to break him out and get him to his scheduled rendezvous with his alien brethren.

That’s about it.  It’s a simple, straight story that just seems to be stretched out needlessly to fill a feature length film.  There are the typical Muppet touches like celebrity cameos (the funniest involving Ray Liotta as a guard), and references to other movies including E. T., Close Encounters, Men in Black, Contact, and even The Shawshank Redemption, believe it or not.  But that’s about as far as the entertainment value really goes.  The Muppets themselves just seem to be going through the motions and doing a film strictly by the numbers.  There’s no longer any sense of fun or chemistry between them as they interact.  Although, I suppose gratitude is in order that the Muppet folks are still able to make movies at all, using hand puppets in an age of computer generated characters creating films like A Bug’s Life or Babe. 

The Muppets miss the Jim Henson touch.  I salute Goelz, Frank Oz, Brian Henson and all of the others who have continued to keep Jim’s unique vision alive, but it may be time to face the cold hard fact that the Muppets’ best work is behind them rather than ahead of them.

Video ***

This is a mostly good transfer from Columbia Tri Star…the only real complaint is a slight bit of compression noticeable in one or two of the darker scenes.  This is not a dual layer disc, but rather a typical CST DVD with widescreen on one side and standard on another.  Dual layering might have fixed that problem here, as this is a disc with a movie and quite a number of extra features.  As long as CST and other studios regularly offer the viewing choice, this may just be something we have to live with, at least until DVD 18 becomes more standard.  Still, for the most part, images are sharp and clear, and with good, natural, well contained coloring.

Audio ***

The 5.1 soundtrack, though spare in using the rear stage and the .1 channel, is still a pretty good listen.  The extra channels help the audio's dynamic range increase over the standard 2.0 surround track.  Dialogue is always very clean and clear, but the soundtrack's best moments are the musical numbers and score, including the dramatic opening and the older dance tunes.  One can't help but wonder, watching Kermit, Gonzo and friends boogieing on down to the Commodores' "Brick House", if they have any clue what that song's really about.

Features ****

But hold the phone…all is not lost with this film!  Activate the commentary track, and you’ve got a much more funny and enjoyable evening’s entertainment!  As with their landmark Ghostbusters DVD, Columbia has included a live action commentary, with silhouetted figures a la Mystery Science Theatre.  But this one is much better…more animated, and with more interaction between the commentators, both with each other and with the screen.  And the commentators in this case are director Brian Hill, along with Kermit, Gonzo, and Rizzo.  What a clever, fun filled idea!  And the track is hysterical…much funnier than the movie.  They joke around about the film, making smart aleck comments and puns and such.  Interestingly enough, the director is reduced to straight man on his own commentary, though Hill is obviously a good sport about it.  The characters even wander in and out of doors to the left and right of the screen at various times.  Kermit, for example, announces early on that he’s going to get popcorn.  Hill asks, “They have a snack bar on this DVD?”  Kermit replies, “Sure, they even sell microchips.”  Or Gonzo’s claim that he and Andie MacDowell are working together on a new romantic comedy called “Four Weddings and a Funnel Cake Accident”.  This made for one of the most enjoyable DVD experiences I’ve yet had.

Oh, and there’s some other stuff on the disc, too…trailers, talent files, a music video, and a collection of “outtakes” a la A Bug’s Life.  Outstanding, fun filled extras package all around. 

Summary:

Buy Muppets From Space for the commentary track.  Why not?  If you turn it on when you play the movie, you can actually raise my film rating by a whole star.  And we’ve all bought discs with top notch audio and video transfers just to show off DVD’s technical superiority, so what’s wrong with owning a disc just to show off the format’s features capabilities?