Film: A girl's best friend is her Muppet

Muppets from Space (U) Tim Hill; 87 mins Mystery Men (PG) Kinka Usher; 122 mins
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The Independent Culture
It's sod's law. You write your films of the year piece, and two days later see a film that belongs in the top 10. Muppets from Space might sound like a disingenuous addition to a list that included The Blair Witch Project and High Art, but it's not. Like most people, when I was little I was mad for Sesame Street. (My dad recently sent me a Miss Piggy card as a reminder of my one-time party piece - a "Hiyaaaargh!" aimed at my brother's head.)

In Muppets from Space, Gonzo (the blue one with the saxophonal nose) discovers he is an alien, and sets about creating the perfect landing pad for his family. When he is abducted by the government, the rest of the cast pile in to rescue him from a secure facility full of human actors delighted to have been asked to be in a Muppets film. The superb Ray Liotta plays a security guard, but even he is out-acted by Pepe the King Prawn.

Muppets are different from puppets. Puppets are frightening things. They have always been staples of horror iconography because they articulate the artist's anxiety about giving life to characters. There is great artistic shame in giving a supposed free will to what is in fact a slave. Perhaps this was why Rod Hull always looked so shattered. Emu enjoyed his existence so much that he resented its curtailment, and was always after one thing: freedom. Like Mr Punch, he was the lord of misrule, the hell raiser, a kind of genie. In the words of the puppeteer in Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theatre: "Puppets did not say `I am innocent and good', they said the opposite; `I will play with you however I like.' "

But with the Muppets, you don't get any of that complicated, uncomfortable stuff. The genius of Jim Henson, their creator, was his removal of the disquieting element from puppets without entirely castrating them. And it's incredible how expressive the Muppets can be. Kermit does a yawn, but keeps it inside his throat. Miss Piggy can convey all the pain of once having to pose for a bacon commercial as a struggling actress (she kept her clothes on) with an over-jolly flick of her new fringe. Animal is just like one of the guys you knew at college who went off the deep end thinking he was a bin-bag.

The Muppets are a gang, a mob, a tribe. If there is ever any menace to them, it's cheerful, curious. And Henson clearly loved them. They were absolutely not products of a billion-dollar two-year focus group, with an eye on a McDonald's tie-in. But the really terrific thing about the Muppets is that they were, and still are, full of the sincerity of the 1970s, the great era of children's entertainment - Fingerbobs, Bagpuss, The Magic Roundabout, The Clangers. Like many of these shows, the Muppets were created by a bunch of hippies who remained genuinely childlike. Like GK Chesterton on Dickens: "There was no question of giving the people what they wanted, he wanted what they wanted."

Here's an example. Dave Goelz (who voices Gonzo) met Muppets guru Frank Oz at a puppetry festival in Oakland in 1972, gave up his job as an industrial designer in Silicon Valley and went straight to work on Sesame Street. No wonder the Muppets were such fun - they were dreamt up by enthusiasts rather than careerists, people who shared ideas rather than hoarded them. But Muppets from Space is so original because is full of a genuine love for an old era, a love so genuine that you really feel its creators could not imagine life any other way. Their vision is autobiographical (they are simply remembering their own best times) not pandering, which is why, when the cast of extras dress in flares and head scarves to greet the aliens, it is not done in an Austin Powers or Boogie Nights kind of way - it is free, light, felt. In Muppets from Space, you get people wearing orange in a non-ironic way. This is a hell of an achievement. And somehow, I wish I knew how, the director manages to make the sidewalks look like they did in films like Serpico, when Al Pacino wandered down the street and bought a puppy from three kids sitting on some steps - the lovely casualness of Seventies American cinema, full of the sense of being in your time. But now it's a different time, and a world loud with ferociously up-to-the-minute children's entertainment. In comparison, Muppets from Space is wholly unusual and lacking in anxiety. It's a lovely film.

Mystery Men pokes fun at the classic Marvel comic-books and has a bunch of wannabe superheroes taking on the evil Casanova Frankenstein (Geoffrey Rush, having fun for once, but still managing to look like the man who watches you from the other side of the road in a nightmare). The film solidly spoofs and winks, with some great results, and its characters remain consistently witty and cross. William H Macy as "Shovelman", the superhero who hits people with a spade and always tries to get home in time for tea, is familiarly ingenious.

Blue Streak stars Martin Lawrence as a jewel thief posing as a police detective. The Reagan-era action comedy featuring a dud star ceasessly promoting himself has surely had its day, but at least Blue Streak doesn't flog its pointlessness.

The Music Freelancers is a terrific French film in which a group of musicians give a troubled concert at a private chateau. Rarely have I heard the process of music-making so intellectually discussed. It also features a gobsmacking reading of a poem by Alfred de Vigny: "Go boldly, leave the towns behind. Walk through the fields with a flower in your hand." Sounds like something Gonzo might have up on his wall.

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