THE BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT children's films is how they can touch on Big and Important issues: death (Bambi, Old Yeller); divorce (The Parent Trap); even censorship (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut). With the release of Muppets from Space, you can add existential angst to the list of Big Issues.

Gonzo the Great has been the Muppets' resident daredevil for years, but like most orphans and at-risk youth, his bravery is most likely derived from a lack of a sense of self. Not only does he have no knowledge of who his parents were (or are), he has no idea what species he is. As the movie begins, he is questioning his own existence. Despite living in a boarding house full of Muppet friends, he's feeling alone in the universe.

Things start changing for the better when Gonzo starts receiving messages from space, or perhaps he's just going crazy: He sees cosmic fish and talking sandwiches (when no one else does), and they tell him of their imminent arrival. If Paul Schrader had written this, Gonzo may have gone on a drug binge or killing spree, and the requisite happy ending would have been more ironic, like Travis Bickle's negligible hero status at the end of Taxi Driver. Instead, the message transmogrifies from being about the loneliness of existence to the acceptance of being different and the various definitions of "family."

If the ending isn't as satisfying as the set-up is interesting, well, who cares? The movie as a whole is fun, from the madcap mayhem of the group scenes and one-liners, to the entirely funkadelic soundtrack (full of songs by James Brown, the Commodores, George Clinton, and the Isley Brothers). Special mention must be given to Pepe the Prawn, who has the most auspicious and hilarious Muppet debut in years. Indeed, this jumbo shrimp has a bright future ahead of him.

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