The sixth full-length feature to showcase Jim Henson’s immensely popular puppets is a modestly clever comedy in which nothing, not even the wild and crazy ravings of the unpredictable Animal, gets seriously out of hand. The mildness of “Muppets From Space” may come as a great relief to parents desperate for G-rated entertainment during the warm-weather months. But do moppets still love Muppets? At a recent preview screening, grade-schoolers and pre-schoolers seemed neither restless nor enraptured. Pic likely won’t find its widest and most enthusiastic audience until it appears as a sell-through homevid item.
Departing from the formula employed in the last two Muppet movies — “The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) and “Muppet Treasure Island” (1996) — the new installment goes back to basics and places the title characters in a contempo setting. Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Rizzo the Rat and all the other cloth-and-foam-rubber creatures share cramped but comfortable digs in a weather-beaten old house. For the most part, joy prevails. Right from the start, however, it appears that the bent-beaked Gonzo (voiced by Dave Goelz) is even more of an odd man out than usual.
The opening dream sequence, in which a skeptical Noah (F. Murray Abraham) refuses to admit Gonzo aboard the Ark because he doesn’t have a mate, underscores the poor little guy’s main concern: There is no one (or nothing) quite like him on Earth. His mood lightens only when he begins to receive cryptic messages (“R U There”) in his Capt. Alphabet breakfast cereal. Based on this and other evidence, Gonzo snaps to the idea that maybe there’s a good reason he’s so unique — that is, maybe he’s the offspring of extraterrestrials.
At first, Kermit and other cooler heads in the Muppet household try gently to dissuade Gonzo from trying to trace his roots. But when Miss Piggy lands a low-level job at a TV station, she eagerly uses Gonzo as her stepping stone to replace a superstar reporter (Andie MacDowell) as the host of a “reality” series titled “UFO Mania.”
Unfortunately, Gonzo’s on-the-air appearance attracts the attention of K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor), the easily frazzled chief of a government agency charged with finding and capturing alien visitors. Agents grab Gonzo and transport him to the agency’s headquarters, where Gonzo befriends some lab rats who are regularly tormented by a mad scientist (David Arquette).
Even worse things lie ahead — Singer wants to remove Gonzo’s brain for closer scrutiny — if Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Pepe the Prawn can’t rescue their buddy in time.
Working from a funny, punny script by Jerry Juhl, Joseph Mazzarino and Ken Kaufman, director Tim Hill keeps things moving fast enough to meet the demands of short attention spans. Costumer Polly Smith, production designer Stephen Marsh and the tech crew provide pleasingly bright and colorful visuals as attention-grabbing as anything found in most animated features.
Gonzo is suitably engaging in his first starring role, while roommate Rizzo the Rat (voiced by Steve Whitmire) provides wise-guy comic relief. Kermit (also Whitmire) remains, as always, serenely graceful under pressure. Miss Piggy (Frank Oz) is slightly less overbearing than usual, and handles the occasional martial-arts mayhem with impressive aplomb. Once again, however, the comic genius of Fozzie Bear (also Oz) remains sadly underutilized.
The humans co-stars — including Ray Liotta as a security guard, Rob Schneider as a TV producer and Hollywood Hogan (aka Hulk Hogan) as a Man in Black — inhabit their roles with the usual amount of winking playfulness that actors usually exhibit in scenes opposite Muppets. They appear to be having a great time while being good sports, and a certain amount of their joy is contagious.
A few elements are aimed at grown-ups: jokey references to “Star Trek” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (and, weirdly enough, “The Shawshank Redemption”), a pop-tune soundtrack filled with disco and R&B from the 1970s and early ’80s. For the most part, however, pic is skewed toward a much younger demographic.
Ultimately, Gonzo has to choose between joining aliens on a trip back to their home planet, or remaining on Earth with his Muppet friends. If his decision is the least bit surprising to you, you’re probably part of the target audience for “Muppets From Space.”