`Muppets From Space' looks like a winner

Review: Sassy and even hip film turns a supporting member of the fuzzy troupe into a star, to the delight of kids and adults alike.

July 14, 1999|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

Fans of the old "Password" game show will remember that opposites weren't allowed as clues, so if "Muppets" were the word, "relevant" or "hip" couldn't have been clues.

That's not to say that Jim Henson's stable of cloth characters weren't funny or entertaining, but even in their heyday, the Muppets' brand of humor seemed, well, a bit dated.

Based on their sassy new film, "Muppets from Space," Kermit, Miss Piggy, Statler and Waldorf, and even Fozzie Bear, the "wakka, wakka" guy himself, have gotten hip just in time for the new millennium.

The film does quite well by its intended pre-teen audience, but it also crackles with a sly sensibility that will appeal to adults, thanks to a clever script, a rollicking soundtrack and a series of humorous cameos.

Right off the bat, as Gonzo is banished from the Ark, by F. Murray Abraham as Noah, who hands him an umbrella and says, "You may need this," you get the feeling that this isn't your typical Muppet movie.

Indeed, this film is different in that the trials of Gonzo, heretofore a supporting member of the Muppet troupe, are the focus; the frog and the pig are just along for the ride.

Director Tim Hill, in his feature film debut, wisely taps into the sense of alienation many children feel about being different, without pandering or talking down to them.

The Muppet menagerie is populated, of course, by creatures of all shapes, sizes and amounts of fur, who seem quite comfortable with their uniqueness.

But Gonzo, a not-quite human cannonball who is eager to please, can't figure out what he is or where he comes from, since, with his prominent proboscis, he doesn't look like anyone else.

And so, Gonzo sets off on a quest of self-discovery, aided by his best buddy, the rat Rizzo (get it?). In the course of the journey, Gonzo becomes convinced that he is an alien, a notion fueled when his alphabet cereal spells out a message and when the lawnmower cuts out a clue, a nice little riff on "Field of Dreams."

Jeffrey Tambor, best known as the dimwitted sidekick on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," is the nominal villain, a government operative with some open cases of paranoia in his cupboard. Tambor plays the role with gusto, without going too terribly over the top.

Kids will love the wild sight gags and may even groove to the 1970s funk-based soundtrack, while parents will have fun watching such luminaries as Andie MacDowell (in the role of a tabloid TV reporter who runs afoul of Miss Piggy), Ray Liotta, Kathy Griffin, Rob Schneider and Baltimore's own Josh Charles, ham it up with the Muppets.

And watch out for an ever-so-quick, but hilarious and uncredited appearance by two stars of one of those teen angst dramas. The moment is precious and funny, all at once.

Who knew a Muppet movie could be this hip?

'Muppets From Space'

Starring Gonzo, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Jeffrey Tambor

Directed by Tim Hill

Released by Columbia Pictures and Jim Henson Pictures

Running Time 82 minutes

Rated G

Sun score: ***

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