Film: A girl's best friend is her Muppet

Muppets from Space (U) Tim Hill; 87 mins Mystery Men (PG) Kinka Usher; 122 mins

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.

Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
ArtHow Monet and Degas influenced a generation of American artists
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor