I was terribly sad when Jim Henson died tragically and suddenly in 1990. I think that's the saddest I've been for anyone other than a family member, probably because I felt not just his loss, and my personal loss, but everyone's loss around the world. It's no surprise that while it's easy to find a schoolkid (or an adult for that matter) that cannot pick out the leader of their country from a set of photos, or find their country on a blank map of the world, it's nearly impossible to find someone who doesn't recognize Kermit the Frog.

So you can understand that I approached the movie Muppets In Space (1999) with some degree of trepidation. Kermit is in it, but it's not Jim's voice or puppeteering. I was afraid that he wouldn't sound the same, or act the same, that the Muppets and Henson Productions had lost its creative touch, and that, in short, the movie would suck.

I was so happy to be proven wrong.

The film, the sixth Muppet Movie and the third one made after Henson's death, centers on Gonzo and his origins. The movie opens with Gonzo having a nightmare in which he is denied travel on Noah's Ark because he doesn't seem to have a family or a species: he is, as he puts it, a "whatever". His nightmare feeds an existential crisis about his being unique and alone in the world, until he is contacted by aliens who reveal that his origin is extraterrestrial, and who send him a series of Field of Dreams-like messages. The first is when his breakfast cereal starts to rearrange itself into words:

Gonzo: "Hey Rizzo! I think my Kap'n Alphabet is sending me a message!"

Rizzo: "Yeah, I know what you mean...I had some of that guacamole last night and it's still speakin' to me"

Aside from the usual panoply of funny lines, situations and, well, zany muppetness, the film also strikes a few sudden, deep emotional chords as Gonzo struggles to find a place for himself, to literally find himself, in a world where he is different. His crisis is immediately recognizable: everyone is an alien in a world where they feel, for whatever reason, that they don't fit in. This is the genius of the Muppets in a nutshell: one moment you're laughing your ass off, the next you're getting slightly misty eyed looking at a short blue furry guy with bulgy eyes and a huge curled up, um, proboscis, and you're thinking, "I feel for you man, I've been there." But even with the unusual shift away from Kermit as the center of action, he is still the moral and emotional voice of the muppets. When Gonzo laments that he is a "freak", Kermit replies: "You know what you are, Gonzo?" "What?" "Distinct." You just want to hug the little green guy.

The other remarkable thing about the film is that it is, well, funky. The prototypical Muppet film features a number of muppet ballads sung by muppets as a sort of broadway-play like interlude. All of that is thrown out the window, and the movie opens up to a rockin' version of "Brick House" by The Commodores, and later tunes by James Brown ("Get up Offa That Thing"), George Clinton and Billy Preston. The opening rendition of "Brick House", which is done entirely to Muppets waking up and performing morning ablutions before breakfast, is worth the price of the whole movie. (Watch for: the boomerang fish guy, the wallpaper in Kermit's room, Animal's hair-care solution)

As is par for the course for a Muppet film, the movie is sprinkled with a liberal amount of lighthearted spoofing (Men In Black, Close Encounters, and Field of Dreams as mentioned before top the list), and a bunch of small roles and cameos by celebrities: F. Murray Abraham as Noah, Andie McDowell as a TV reporter, two of the "Dawson's Creek" gang, the wonderful Kathy Griffin and the sadly underutilized Josh Charles, of "Sports Night" fame.

Most of all, it's a chance to visit with old friends, and realize that they've still got it after all this time.

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