THE FELT-LINED COUNTDOWN: Muppets From Space

18 May, 2019 at 8:44 pm (film, muppets)

PREVIOUSLY: A beloved cast of pigs and frogs and dogs and bears and whatevers apparently wasn’t relatable enough, so a brand-new humanoid Muppet was created to save us all. What is this, Sesame Street?*

TITLE CARD: Muppets From Space

Well, not to make another entry focused primarily on music, but I feel obligated to begin by recanting my previous position that The Muppets was the first needle-drop Muppets soundtrack. Boy, was I wrong. The Muppets from Space soundtrack is a jukebox playlist that is as funky as it is dissonantly idiosyncratic. After the standard space-referenced star-field credit sequence, we arrive in a dream sequence where Gonzo is prevented from getting on the ark by F. Murray Abraham’s Noah. This is followed by the film’s opening number, a sequence of how long a wait it is to use the bathroom in the morning in the Muppets’ communal house. It’s a mildly amusing bit, gentle in its mundanity, but mystifyingly set to “Brick House” by the Commodores.

Personally, I have never been completely sure how, precisely, this song has been complimentary to its subject. Sure, “she’s mighty mighty, just lettin’ it all hang out“, but you’re still eliding the expression “she’s built like a brick shit-house”, which is a kind of sturdy, fecal association that one doesn’t necessarily associate with elegance, let alone with a sense of community. What is this song doing here with this scene? Did someone do a word search for songs associated with bathrooms and this was the only result that truly kicks it?

The Crooked Beak StoryProbably not, because the soul/funk timbre of the soundtrack continues beyond this intro. It’s a lovely, strange series of needle drops that never particularly gels with the theme or the content of the film. Despite the fact that the concept seems to have come from an initiative by director Tim Hill, I couldn’t find any connective tissue between this soundtrack and the message, lensing, or theme of the movie. The film ends with — Spoiler Alert! — Gonzo’s extraterrestrial bretheren arriving and singing a cover of “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang, but an alien funk performance does not necessarily justify an entire audio soundscape with no other connective tissue. My bemusement with the “compliment” of the lyrics aside, “Brick House” is a great song, as is the later use James Brown’s “Get Up Offa That Thing” for Gonzo’s The Straight Story-esque journey to the television station, which also doesn’t really work but fakes it admirably.

But I’m getting slightly ahead of myself. Before the Commodores, when Gonzo wakes from his dream sequence, we establish the main themes for the film: loneliness and togetherness. The film will ultimately be about belonging, and that one doesn’t need to be with one’s original people or family if one has found belonging and acceptance. Gonzo hasn’t realized this yet, as he’s fixating on the idea that he’s alone, and that he’s perhaps the only one of his kind, and that he doesn’t even know what his “kind” is.

When he wakes from his dream, he knocks Rizzo out the window. Rizzo is aggrieved by this treatment from his roommate, as if that is some sort of sacred bond that should never be trifled with. It’s an odd central relationship. Rizzo is an opportunist at heart. He’s a rat, a New Yorker, and a cynic, and while he and Gonzo apparently made for a pretty good pairing in A Muppet Christmas Carol — I can’t quite comment, as I don’t believe I’ve ever watched the whole thing… before you gasp too uproariously, that’s part of why I decided to do this whole countdown. So, I’ll get to it, I promise! — they don’t actually have a lot in common. I assume there was some behind-the-scenes camaraderie between Whitmire and Goelz that translated into them being the focus of the films during this post-Henson era, but there isn’t a natural chalk-and-cheese relationship here that I buy into so much that I would worry about the sundering of their companionship.

In part this is because, their Christmas rapport aside, the “roommate bond” is not especially strong one that epic sagas are based on. Gonzo and Kermit share some good moments. Kermit trying to connect with Gonzo over breakfast while being distracted by the chaos of the house is nice, and leads to the simple moment at the end where Gonzo says that Kermit is his best friend and Kermit tells Gonzo he loves him.

It’s charming and touching, and while it doesn’t drastically undercut the preceding moment between Gonzo and Rizzo, where Rizzo is too repressed to admit his feelings of loss, it does make that central friend relationship seem a little empty. Also, speaking of relationships, what the hell happened to Camilla? She’s in the movie. There are several shots of chickens, mostly as local color to fill out the insanity of the Muppet home (the penguins do a similar job, and perhaps do it better), and Camilla is usually identifiable as the chicken with added eyelashes. However, she is never identified by name, nor is her relationship with Gonzo made textual. When Gonzo considers getting on a space-craft at the end, a la Close Encounters of the Third Kind, there is no lingering regrets about abandoning his traditional paramour. It’s a nice thing that the film can concentrate on the loving relationships between males and that Kermit is bold enough to say it — an issue that was just synchronously commented upon in the Times‘ “Modern Love” column — but is the film scared to address the issue of a romance between a whatever and his chosen bird? Potentially, as it is willing to make a joke out of the issue during the rat Prison Movie pastiche when “the Birdman” is described as “harmless” in his relationship with Gladys, a pigeon.

The film is willing to have a mildly satirical nod to the idea of being an extraterrestrial as a metaphor for being gay, but has apparently decided to shy significantly away from inter-species romance.

Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship is also relegated to a considerably back burner position. Piggy is positioned as a romantic figure. When she gets in a tussle with COVNET secret agent Dan Rydell Will Gardner Josh Charles, the sexual overtones are overt, with him saucily asking, while initiating physical combat, “Where have you been all my life?” Later, during a Muppet Labs homage to the traditional James Bond “Q” scene, Piggy lounges in a doorway, striking a Bond Girl/model pose before being presented with mind-control spray that she claims she won’t need because of her inherent feminine wiles. An appearance by Ray Liotta — who occupies a rare position of cameoing in two Muppet films — proves this wrong, but reinforces the narrative that it is part of a cross-species sultry persona that is… comically normal?

The cameos in the film are quite minimal, comparatively. F. Murray Abraham, Josh Charles, Liotta are joined by Pat Hingle, Jeffrey Tambor, Andie McDowell, Rob Schneider, Hulk Hogan, David Arquette, and Kathy Griffin, with an extra cameo by Pacey and Joey from Dawson’s Creek who show up at the big alien love-in at the end. This is not, I should emphasize, Joshua Jackson and Katie Holmes, as the dialogue explicitly makes it clear that this sci-fi setting is something that “Dawson would love” and not Van Der Beek, and not the writers, and not anything that would indicate that these are actors. Which means: Muppets From Space is in continuity with Dawson’s Creek. Having never watched the show, I find this to be more of a curio than a revelation, as it’s more difficult for me to parse the larger ramifications of this than, say, Stan Lee linking the ViewAskewniverse and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Regardless, it brings the Celebrity Human Score to a comparatively mere 12, a small number complimented by the fact that the credits list “The Muppet Performers” prior to any celebrities or humans, including those like Jeffrey Tambor, who are plot integral.

The number of human appearances pales conceptually to the number of pop culture references and homages in the film. I’ve mentioned the “prison introduction scene”, which is generic enough that it could come from pretty much anything, but the “Birdman” reference feels particularly pointed (although it is also a bit of a cliché). However, the prison sequences ends with a deliberate visual reference to The Shawshank Redemption, something that one would hope the under-twelves in the audience wouldn’t have been exposed to. The look of Charles’ secret agent is very much right out of Men in Black, and the use of Hollywood Hogan as an agent feels like it could be a reference to the infamous X-Files episode “José Chung’s ‘From Outer Space’“, wherein Jesse Ventura is a Man In Black. The scene where Agent K gears up with shiny space guns in Men in Black is explicitly mimicked, as is the scene from Independence Day where Brent Spiner is controlled by the alien invaders.

The Straight Story is released four months after Muppets From Space, so the tractor thing is probably a coincidence, much how the poker scene where they’re bidding with strange objects feels like a lift from Benny & Joon, but may not be. But the way in which Kermit and Pepe pretend to be doctors in the hallway of the lab can only be an explicit miming of Spies Like Us.

That plus the use of the Star Trek theme music, the parallels to Close Encounters (and the Gonzo head carved out of mashed potatoes), a weak Star Wars joke, and the hippie love-fest about his presence — which could come out of either ID4 or Contact, each of which posit a love-and-let-love acceptance of alien arrival, but with slightly different levels of cynicism — the film becomes a virtual catalogue or primer for alien arrival sci-fi, absent only, well, Arrival.

The last possible homage is in regard to Tambor’s character of Ed. During his examination of Gonzo — which includes the revelation that he has no nostrils, a curious piece of lampshading could only have been rivaled by Kermit’s doctor in Muppets Take Manhattan ordering him to see an Ear, Eye, and Throat specialist because his uvula was too rigid — a classic Muppet piece of vaudeville call-back causes everyone to bust up laughing. Everyone except Ed, who goes apoplectic, enraged by the shame of being laughed at. His desperate, paranoid response is really quite extraordinary, making him threatening, unpredictable, and sympathetic all at once. It truly is a great performance, and — as mentioned — sets him up as a foil for Gonzo. He is equally as alien in his community, but instead of turning mockery into his personal credo, as Gonzo has, Ed has become violently defensive.

DON'T! LAUGH! AT MEEEE!The turn from him being redeemable at the end, when the mockery of the aliens defuses his homicidal rage may be too sudden of a turn. It wraps things up too much, and a silver lamé cape and the name “Zongo” shouldn’t really paper over the fact that he was willing to sell Bobo to a traveling circus a few scenes earlier. But Tambor’s performance is complex enough, it makes him wounded enough, that you don’t want him punished so much as helped out. We would have preferred if he’d found a path parallel to Gonzo’s instead of divergent, and going on the mothership might help him to get there. But his line reading also feels like a performance from a monster movie or a classic B-movie sci-fi something. Maybe it’s just Tambor’s unfortunate weight in this stage of his life, where he looks a little like he could have done a good Tor Johnson in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, but I associate the line reading with a tragic mad scientist in some back catalogue… but I just can’t place it.

But sometimes that ambiguity is nice. This movie, in giving us a definitive answer to Gonzo’s origin and identity, does the unfortunate thing of being too clever for it’s own good. Much how Disney’s Solo: a Star Wars Story answered questions no one really was asking, Muppets From Space unfortunately makes some aspects of Gonzo’s behavior reductive instead of additive. Gonzo is a daredevil. He takes crazy stunt acts and combines them with ludicrous stakes or attempts to add artistic merit to them. He is not just after simple notoriety, but he wants true glory that comes from doing the unimaginable. So to reduce his love of being shot from a cannon — a standard circus daredevil trope — to his ancestral extraterrestrial memory flattens out his verve. It’s no longer a thing he does as he tries to meld the sublime and the ridiculous, like reciting Shakespeare while hanging from his nose, or performing Mozart from the top of a flagpole, it’s just a thing his “people” do. It makes it less inventive and makes him less special. I’m glad he found his bloodline and reconfirmed his adoptive family, I just wish it hadn’t come at the expense of making his showmanship feel less… showy.

RATING: Goat, Dwarf, or Jar of Peanut Butter? DWARF. This is solid, right-down-the-middle fare. It probably isn’t better than The Muppets, but its narrower scope — loneliness and pop culture references — makes it better at achieving its goals than the comparatively overstuffed sequel.

NEXT: Tim Curry shivers his timbers or swashes his buckle or generally gets down with bad self as he tries to capture the lightning that Michael Caine had bottled as Scrooge four years prior. I’ve never seen this, nor have I ever watched all of Rocky Horror, nor Legend, nor basically much of Curry’s oeuvre outside of Clue. Will the Muppets be weirder than furry Emma Thompson? I’ll find out!

 

Related Links:
* I thought I’d watched the entirety of the Muppet Show season one collection, but — speaking of humanoid Muppets — I have never seen this skit of Bert and Ernie performing in prime time.
A list of Gonzo’s various stunts and performances
A very emotional reaction to Gonzo’s familial revelations.

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