A Retrospective: The 20th Anniversary of Muppets From Space

Published: July 17, 2019
Categories: Feature, Reviews

When I think back to July 14, 1999, I can’t help but think of Annie.

Annie was one of my closest friends around this time. I have a lot of memories of us playing dress up, writing absurd skits, having extravagant weddings for our stuffed animals, staying up late watching Boy Meets World, y’know, all the classic 90’s kids stuff before social media took over our lives.

I think of Annie for this particular date because, as you’ve no doubt gleaned from this article’s title, it is the release date of Muppets From Space and Annie won a contest wherein she got to actually interview the Muppets – and I was so stupid jealous. (Not gonna lie, still am.)

I don’t remember how she won, but Annie appeared on our local news station and interviewed Kermit and Gonzo. (I feel like there was another Muppet present – Piggy? Pepe?) This news segment probably spanned a total of 3 minutes and, despite my best efforts in searching, exists nowhere on the internet (again, this was before social media took over). But those 3 minutes might as well have been 3 hours to little me. I remember being so jealous that Annie got to meet everyone’s favorite frog and weirdo, and this was even before I was Muppet crazy.

Oddly enough, until I was 20 and obsessed with everything Jim Henson ever touched, my association with Muppets from Space was purely this. My soul-crushing jealousy of Annie Hunt and nothing else. Oh sure, I saw the movie in theaters as a kid and liked it, but it doesn’t cling to my memories (unlike Great Muppet Caper, Christmas Carol, and Treasure Island, all of which I loved watching on repeat as a child).

Once I was in college, I became hooked on the Muppets. At the time of me falling down the Henson rabbit hole, Muppets from Space was the only Muppet film streaming on Netflix. So, as a broke college student, this naturally meant I watched Muppets From Space all the time. Which is to say, I now have a deep affinity for this movie, even though I am able to acknowledge how time has not exactly been kind to it.

That said, I had not seen this movie in at least five years, so I sat down to watch it a few days back in preparation for writing this piece.

First off, it’s clear how much Disney could care less about owning this production, as the menu screen is, pure and simple, dull as all get out. It’s just an image of the characters with a few menu options to chose from and nothing else. No weird moving stock images of the Muppets. No characters chatting for long bouts of time on a loop. There was zero effort put into this DVD. (The special features are just as bleak. There’s a music video I didn’t watch, artist case files, and seven pretty boring bloopers which you have to click on individually to watch instead of just watching them in a string – seriously, who the hell designed this DVD??)

So. Right. The movie.

Again, this year marks the 20th anniversary of Muppets from Space. As I already alluded to, this movie has not exactly aged well. While I have a deep affection for this film, even I can recognize that it falls at the bottom of the list when it comes to all eight full length feature Muppet films (though I will fight anyone about how this one is way better than the two made for TV movies, It’s A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie and Muppets Wizard of Oz).

I’m going to start with the bad, so first and foremost: “I will smack you like a bad bad donkey, h’okay?” Just wanted to get that one out of the way so we could all go back to forgetting it was ever uttered by a Muppet.

Ultimately, there’s something about the humor in this film, compared to the rest of the Muppet movies, that feels way off for me. This film gives me a lot of Muppets Tonight vibes – which is, unfortunately, not a compliment coming from my mouth. I’m surprised that there are no writer credit crossovers on those two productions (and also, Jerry Juhl was a writer for Space which I did not think was a thing). Moments like Fozzie picking his nose, Kathy Griffin wildly making out with Animal, and Josh Charles giving Piggy a noogie and then Piggy punching him in the balls just don’t end up paying off in this film. The cameos are also crazy over the top, which has totally worked in other films but for some reason don’t work in this one. Like, at all. (Plus Hulk Hogan is in this movie, and hey, that dude is a pretty awful human!)

Other things that have not aged well? Animal chasing and grabbing at Kathy Griffin (I know chasing women is a central part of Animal’s identity, but still) comes to mind, but also just, like, the Cosmic Fish. Besides being insanely weird facets to this film, their accents are stereotypical and offensive – and super unnecessary? Honestly, the talking sandwich is way more endearing.

But the number one thing that did not age well with this movie? The CGI.

Outside of all their practical effects with puppetry, the CGI in this film is not great. I know this was made back in 1999, but that’s the year Matrix, Toy Story 2, and The Mummy all came out, so don’t tell me there wasn’t the possibility of better special effects. The intro with the big blocky text imposed on the tacky zooming star background (and then an explosion??) looks awful. Any green screen in this movie looks shoddy – which is weird since the green screen in Christmas Carol is way better and that movie came out seven years prior. The cereal moving is bad. Gonzo getting struck by lightening is bad. The door in a jar is bad. I know this movie probably didn’t have the biggest budget, but a part of me wishes they had forgone a lot of the digital special effects and worked more within their practical wheelhouse.

Finally, in my notes I at one point wrote: about halfway through the movie and I’m bored.

So all of that said, it seems like I really don’t like Muppets From Space, right? Wrong.

First off, while I did write that I was bored in the middle of the film, let me be clear that I love the beginning and end of the movie. The middle suffers from the news station / lab plots, which don’t do much for me. But the beach party at the end always grabs my attention back, and best of all: the beginning.

There is something about the Muppets sharing one big house together that I absolutely adore. You get to see everyone in their PJs interacting. Kermit wearing a bathrobe! Gonzo’s chicken pajamas! Dr. Teeth in a nightgown! Piggy getting ready for her day! Statler and Waldorf enjoying their morning coffee! Swedish Chef making breakfast for everyone! Sam leading living room aerobics! Pepe bathing in the sink! Fozzie wearing a rain slicker for some weird reason in the shower!

Normally the movies are either the Muppets coming together, going somewhere, or telling a story. In this one we get to see them hanging out together (albeit, not as much as I’d like). It’s a dynamic we don’t get a lot from the Muppets – them just living.

I particularly think Kermit is used great in this movie – he’s very much in his element. Not only do we see him keeping an eye on Gonzo throughout, we also get a clear picture that he’s the one holding everything together. He’s painting the house, taking care of bills, he does it all. We also get a lot of tender, good-hearted Kermit. I know we Muppet fans are often fighting for non-Muppet fans to take angry / mean Kermit seriously, but come on, I love good-natured Kermit! That guy’s great!

I do like Jeffrey Tambor’s character in this movie (as I think it’s important to hold yourself accountable when praising problematic people, Jeffrey Tambor has been accused of sexual harassment and tormenting female co-stars). While Ed Singer does fall low on the list of best Muppet villains, I’d willingly put him above Tex Richman. Though I think his character is heightened due to his relationship with Bobo the Bear (“The Remote!” “The Goat?”), he’s got some solidly funny moments on his own. Plus I love the little cape he wears at the end.

Speaking of the remote/goat exchange, there are several moments that are genuinely funny throughout. The “Doctor?”Doctor.” exchange is one of my favorite gags in the entire film, as is Bunsen & Beaker being left at the gas station (only to arrive at the beach in a van full of familiar-and-oh-no-now-I’m-suddenly-sad hippies) and Ray Liotta being super chipper with all the Muppets after being brainwashed. The one part of this movie that legit made me laugh out loud is, of course, the scene where Gonzo’s eyes are sweeping the mantle, looking at all the pictures of the Muppet families together, only then to land on a picture of him, like, a mile away from the camera alone on a beach. Just the idea that someone framed that picture in particular and added it to the collection makes me giggle.

I will also note here that I watched this movie with my boyfriend, Stephen (who’s been featured in a couple of my ToughPigs Christmas pieces now). His biggest contributions were that he thought the “How do you smell?” “Awful – trust me, I’m his roommate.” exchange was funny, and that Bubba is the best character in the entire movie. His words, but I can kind of get on board.

And then, yes, we come to Gonzo. My favorite Muppet. Of course he has something to do with why this movie is cherished by me, despite the many flaws. Any Muppet production that puts Gonzo front and center has my attention.

First off, it goes without saying, Gonzo’s power clash outfit in this movie is fabulous – chicken on tie, weird vest, and salmon colored shirt. Perfection as always.

I still don’t know, ultimately, my feelings on the story-line of Gonzo being an alien. I know in true Muppet cannon he’s not (all movies are non-cannon, and in interviews since the Muppets have stated this was a film and that Gonzo’s still a whatever). I do know that I think the ending of the film is fun. I like seeing all of Gonzo’s relatives, how they all have the hooked nose but different hair styles and looks.

After watching this movie, I had to ask myself: does the concept of Gonzo not wanting to be alone match up with his character? Like, being the only one? Normally he relishes in being the weird whatever of the group, but I guess sometimes even the weird extrovert doesn’t want to be alone. I always like seeing the more vulnerable sides of Gonzo; those moments are nice foils to his normal zaniness. In the end, I think we can all relate to this idea of loving your weirdness but simultaneously wanting to find others like you.

As to the message for this movie – well, wait, there are two other messages that I want to throw out before we go to the big (obvious) theme of the film.

First off, at one point Gonzo says to the gang, “Kermit, guys, I realize that it may be hard for you to accept me as an alien, but I didn’t choose to be one. Well, I always had alien tendencies. This just make sense to me.” Look. I am not saying this movie is an allegory for coming out as queer / trans and your friends coming to accept your new sexuality / sexual identity. But. I mean. It’s kind of there, right?

Second, when asking Stephen how he liked the film, he responded, “This movie is about the specter of Capitalism trapping the Muppets and forcing them to betray one another.” To be clear, he said this in relation to Bobo betraying Gonzo and Piggy using Gonzo to get famous. I like my sexuality theory way better.

But yes, okay, the main message of this movie is that of found family vs. blood family. It’s a message done time and time again by plenty of mediums, but I feel like this movie gets it. Gonzo spends the entire film desperate to find his biological family, but in the end realizes that his place is on earth with his found family, the Muppets. It’s a message I feel is most important in this day and age – there are so many young people that don’t have families or, well, who have family’s that don’t want them (for clarity, see theory one). This movie makes it clear how a found family is just as valid and necessary; it’s just as much a real family. The Muppets have been Gonzo’s family for 20+ years at the time of this movie, and him choosing them at the end warms my heart.

I found ToughPigs at a time where I didn’t have many friends and my biological family was all far away. It was the community I needed, and I went from feeling so lonely to having so many wonderful people in my life who cared about me. Families can be what we make them, and I’m grateful to have my own little weirdo family, even if it mostly exists online.

Is this movie perfect? No way, but there’s a lot of good to be found in it, and I for one will always be a fan of this –

Oh wait, crap, one more thing, how the heck did Gonzo build a great looking Jacuzzi in just one day? Did he miss his calling to be a Jacuzzi builder? Where’s the follow-up on that plot point?? Can I hire Gonzo to build me one, please???

Anyway, I might not have been as lucky of a kid as Annie Hunt, but damn if I don’t feel lucky for everything the Muppets have given me – including this weird, endearing movie.

Click here to *not* slap anyone like a bad bad donkey on the ToughPigs forum!

by Julia Gaskill


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