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
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
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
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
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.