Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Special Edition DVD
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, P&S, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC] & Dolby Surround, subtitles: English, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, rated G, 88 min., $24.95, street date 10/26/99.
Directed by Tim Hall. Starring The Great Gonzo, Kermit the Frog, Rizzo Rat, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, Jeffrey Tambor, Pat Hingle, Andie MacDowell.
The Muppets are back in the zany comedy Muppets From Space, a hilarious extraterrestrial adventure about the search for Gonzo's past. On a quest with buddy Rizzo to find his real family, Gonzo discovers that his long-lost relatives are actually aliens from a distant planet. After announcing to the world on Miss Piggy's talk show, UFOMania, that he is living proof that "we are not alone in the universe," Gonzo becomes the target of paranoid government operative K. Edgar Singer (Jeffrey Tambor). In the end, Gonzo must not only escape the Singer compound, but decide to either board the mother ship and join the family that he has always wanted, or stay on Earth with the friends that he has always known and loved.
Chalk another one up to the temptations of the supplements. Muppets From Space is not a film that looked terribly interesting to me during its theatrical run so I didn't see it. However, when the DVD was announced - less than a month after the film entered theaters! - it was slated to include some fun-sounding extras, most notably a video commentary from the Muppets themselves! How could I pass up something like that? I couldn't, so I preordered the DVD.
Although I hadn't heard many good reviews of the movie, I figured I'd probably find it entertaining nonetheless. After all, between Sesame Street, The Muppet Show and various movies, I grew up on the Muppets. While most of their appeal was felt by kids, Jim Henson's puppets offered a lot of fun for adults as well. The programs always were clever and featured a gently mocking tone that kept the material safe for young 'uns but fun for their parents.
Some of that spirit comes through in MFS, but I must admit that I didn't find it to be terribly entertaining. Oh, I'm sure that it's probably pretty entertaining for kids, but I can't really review films on that basis; it's hard to speculate what other demographics may think of a movie. Hey, I wouldn't even want to speak for my own demographic (that of suave, sophisticated dudes, of course). I can only address what I personally thought of the picture, and MFS just didn't do much for me.
Why this is so is difficult for me to grasp. MFS is one of those movies that seems to have all the right components but the whole adds up to less of its parts. I don't think it's me, per se, because I know that I still find Muppet productions entertaining; the Muppetvision 3D program at Disney-MGM Studios in Florida is tremendously witty, clever and compelling. MFS, on the other hand, doesn't contain one-tenth the creativity and humor that are found in that 20-minute production.
Maybe Jim Henson's death early in the 1990s really dealt a blow to the Muppet productions. Well, I suppose that's pretty obvious; when a seminal creator like him goes, his followers will clearly feel the impact. Perhaps there was some unique quality that he possessed and infused into the Muppet projects that others can imitate but not quite duplicate.
All I know is that there's something missing in MFS and while it's a decent little movie, it lacks much appeal for adults. One somewhat strange component of the film stemmed from its roster of cameo appearances from actors. We see thespians such as Ray Liotta, Andie McDowell, David Arquette, and F. Murray Abraham pop up in bit roles. (Jeffrey Tambor plays the only substantial human part in the movie.) Logically, these brief appearances would seem to be sop for the adults who will delight in seeing the actors in these small roles; after all, that concept was used to great effect in other Muppet productions.
Here's the difference: look at lists of actors from previous Muppet films. 1979's The Muppet Movie offered Steve Martin, Orson Welles, Bob Hope, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Milton Berle, Cloris Leachman, Mel Brooks, and many others - it featured an amazing roster of talent. 1981's Great Muppet Caper can't compete with its predecessor but still offered Diana Rigg, Charles Grodin, John Cleese, and Peter Ustinov. Apparently, no Muppet films came out until 1992's Muppet Christmas Carol (Henson used puppets for 1982's Dark Crystal and 1986's Labyrinth, but these weren't the Muppet characters we knew and loved). For MCC and 1996's Muppet Treasure Island, it looks like the cameo formula used in the first two films was abandoned in favor of worlds with only a few humans.
Anyway, it's pretty clear that while the human talent in the first two films - especially The Muppet - offered a lot of entertainment for adults, the same cannot be said for the roster of MFS. Hey, nothing against these folks; they're all talented actors. But cameos of this sort have to be fun - you need that recognition factor that accounts for half of the entertainment in a cameo. That's not going to happen with Andie McDowell or Ray Liotta.
(Ironically, the most entertaining cameo in MFS is unbilled and will mean much more to teenagers than to adults: Katie Holmes and Joshua Jackson from Dawson's Creek appear, and they're supposed to be in character from the show. Now, I've never actually watched the program, so this fact probably would have slipped by me if they hadn't referred to Dawson, but I nonetheless found this bit pretty amusing.)
It'll be interesting to see how Muppet productions fare over the next few years because I feel that they're primed to do well, if simply because folks in my age group - the same people who spent their formative years watching the Muppets - are starting to have kids who are in the proper age groups to enjoy the material. The last few Muppet movies have tanked - MFS and its paltry $16 million gross included - so the next few years will be very important. Whatever the future may bring, it's pretty clear that additional productions of the caliber of MFS will not help the franchise prosper.
On the other hand, terrific DVDs like the Columbia-Tristar (CTS) production of Muppets From Space will indeed do a lot to make many DVD buffs happy. While Dreamworks and New Line are probably the best supporters of DVD, CTS and Universal are close behind, and this DVD shows why the CTS label has become synonymous with excellent DVDs.
The real claim to fame of CTS DVDs is the fantastic image quality, and MFS is no exception. The film is presented both in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen effort that does not appear to lose anything on the sides; I prefer to see films the way they appeared on movie screens, but I can't quibble with anyone who would rather watch the fullscreen version. The widescreen version is on one side of this single-layered, double-sided DVD, and the fullscreen edition is on the other. The full complement of supplements appears on both sides of the disc.
If there's any fault to be found in the image of MFS, I can't discover it. Okay, that's not completely true; I saw a mark that looked vaguely like a burn hole at one point. That's about it. Other than that, this is a very lovely presentation. Sharpness never deviates from perfectly focussed and crisp, while colors seem quite lively and accurate; the Muppets themselves make use of many different hues, and they all appear wonderfully reproduced. As I already mentioned, virtually no print flaws, grain or artifacts were evident. Black levels looked great. The image of MFS lacked a certain undefinable special quality that would have knocked it up to an "A+", but it's a terrific effort nonetheless.
The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 track doesn't quite live up to the high standards of the image quality, but it's very good on its own. If I had to pick out its main fault, that would be that it doesn't make tremendously active use of the rear channels. Oh, they're utilized, to be sure, and often used very effectively, such as when Gonzo is rocketed through space. However, they simply seem a little more subdued than one would expect from a recent film that contains so many wonderful opportunities for active surround usage; after all, these are the Muppets!
Other than that minor drawback, MFS boasts an excellent soundtrack. First of all, the sound quality itself is terrific. Dialogue and effects always sound clear and crisp, and the music is reproduced with strong dynamic range and a high level of accuracy. Although the rear channels don't do too much, the front soundstage is very nicely defined; audio images are well-localized and they spread across the three front channels effectively. The separation in those speakers is really excellent and it helps make this soundtrack a standout.
MFS is the second DVD to feature a novelty called a "video commentary." In essence, this is the same as a traditional audio commentary except that the viewer can see outlines of the commentators on the screen - Mystery Science Theater 3000 style - as they watch and discuss the movie. Ghostbusters was the first DVD to use this technique, and I found it less than exciting; the track in no way differed from a standard commentary other than the fact that we saw largely static silhouettes of the participants.
The use of this technique in MFS promised to make real use of the video aspect of the commentary; Internet newsgroups were alight with talk of how the Muppets would be all over the screen! Unfortunately, that's not the case. The commentary, which includes director Tim Hill as well as Gonzo (Dave Goelz), Kermit and Rizzo (both played by Steve Whitmire). Although the Muppets are more active than the humans in Ghostbusters, they really don't do much more than point at the screen occasionally and walk from the room at times. As with the Ghostbusters track, there's very little here that makes it worth having the video capability (though I did find watching Kermit trying to get the last piece of popcorn from his bag to be strangely entertaining).
I think that the technology will constrain these video commentaries. For these first two efforts, the video aspect actually uses a subtitle track; as such, it's very limited in what it can display. I don't know for certain, but I think that because of this, the images have to remain pretty monotone and they are limited to a small region of the screen. To be frank, I don't know if video commentaries will ever be useful - the concept doesn't lend itself to a visual presentation - but it's certain that as long as these technological constraints exist, video commentaries will be nothing more than a weak gimmick.
Don't let that take away from your enjoyment of this commentary, however. While there's nothing about it that requires you to watch it along with the film, it makes for a terrifically entertaining listen nonetheless. In fact, this track is much more interesting and much funnier than the film itself. While the participants don't say anything nasty, it's clear that they felt free of their need to entertain kids so they tend to speak on more of an adult level (well, as much of an adult level as we can expect from puppets).
Be warned that this is one of the least informative commentaries you'll ever hear. What did I learn about the making of the film? Well, Hill's wife appears in one scene, and allusions to other Muppeteers in human guise also exist. Hmm ... that's about it.
However - so what? This track was clearly designed as entertainment, not information; if that wasn't the case, it wouldn't feature three fictional characters! The whole thing resembles MST 3K in that the participants - largely the Muppets themselves, and Rizzo dominates - spend most of the time gently cracking on the film and also fabricating silly "facts" about its creation (including a funny thread that speculates on Ray Liotta's middle name). Those looking for some serious details about making Muppet productions should look elsewhere. Those looking to have some fun under the guise of information should examine this commentary - it's worth the price of admission alone.
MFS contains a few other supplements, though none of the caliber of the commentary. An outtakes reel contains 19 separate clips that were left on the cutting room floor. These are all pretty short and range from about five seconds up to maybe 30 seconds each. None of these are deleted scenes; they belong more properly to the category of bloopers, really.
In some ways, these clips resemble the fabricated bloopers from A Bug's Life that so deliciously mocked the form. However, I didn't think that these were a conscious attempt to do that. While at times it appears that we're supposed to view the Muppets themselves as actual actors, I don't think this was done with that conceit in mind. I believe that's just the way the Muppeteers interact; even when they mess up, they keep things in character. I didn't find these clips to be terribly compelling, but they were sort of fun; I definitely preferred them to the typical drivel that's typically presented in the blooper vein.
MFS contains a few more traditional supplements. We see a music video for "Shining Star", the Earth Wind and Fire tune faithfully covered here by the Dust Brothers featuring Jeymes. It's an odd clip in that it simply edits together snippets of the film itself; there's no footage shot especially for the video. As such, it's pretty dull, but at least it's short, since it clocks in at less than two minutes.
Two trailers for MFS show up on the DVD. One is the full theatrical trailer while the other is a teaser. Both are pretty good and they make the movie look a lot more fun than it actually is (which is, after all, the job of a trailer). Trailers for Henson productions The Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, and The Storyteller also appear.
As with the DVDs of TDC and Labyrinth, MFS contains some rather poor talent files. These are CTS's take on traditional DVD biographies, and they bite. They list only a few participants and provide almost no details about the people. Too bad they didn't take the fun road ala Boogie Nights or Alien and create fictional biographies for the Muppets themselves. As these "talent files" stand, they're a quick and fairly useless read.
Much better is the production information found in the DVD's booklet. It's also brief - only two booklet pages contain the text - but the details included offer a nice overview of how the picture was done. While it certainly won't make anyone an expert, it's a decent little piece of text.
As I mentioned at the start of this review, Muppets From Space is one of those DVDs that enticed me to get it largely based upon its supplements. When that happens, sometimes I find things to like about the movie, sometimes I don't. This is a case of the latter; I found MFS to be a mildly entertaining but somewhat blah Muppet adventure; the DVD boasts excellent picture and sound, but that's not enough to make a rather drab movie more entertaining.
On the other hand, the supplements - especially the wonderful video commentary - are very good and make this DVD much more compelling than they otherwise would. For me, that's enough; I think this DVD's a keeper just because I really liked the commentary. If you care less about supplements, that may not be enough to do the trick. Supplement fans like myself or dyed in the wool Muppet boosters will be happy with this DVD and should probably buy a copy; all others may find it less compelling and might want to rent it first.
Current as of 11/1/99
Official Site--A rather in-depth site with behind-the-scenes interviews, backstage scoops, trailers, stills and more. Or head straight to the goodies section where you can find screensavers, game, soundtrack samples, and trailer. From the site, you can also enter the Muppet World, where you will be able to find all your favorite muppets.