As we approach the climax of the spooky season, my mind often turns to a place where it’s Halloween all the time*: The Haunted Mansion. Can you believe that now there are not one, but two feature films based on the classic Disney Parks attraction? Actually, now that I think about it, it’s not that big of a stretch. The ride’s very popular, and a spooky haunted house is a great setting for a movie. It’s actually very believable.
Slightly less believable is that while both the 2003 and 2023 films pack in plenty of references to the ride, neither of them quite embrace the tone that people love so much. On the other hand, there’s Muppets Haunted Mansion. I recently read a piece on Screen Rant by Kate Bove, who argued that the special is the best version of the three, and of course, I agree with them, because only one has Muppets. I didn’t see Howard Tubman trying to spook Eddie Murphy or a single Doglion hitching a ride next to Owen Wilson. I think pretty much everyone reading this is likely to agree that the inclusion of Muppets just make everything better. So the best Haunted Mansion adaptation is settled, but what makes the special even more special is that it also best captures the spirit** of the attraction that has entertained guests for decades.
This doesn’t come as a surprise; the Muppets have generally been pretty faithful in their adaptations, including utilizing direct passages from Charles Dickens*** for The Muppet Christmas Carol. While they’ll always inject their unique sense of humor, they tend to respect the material they work with, and The Haunted Mansion is no exception.
But what makes The Haunted Mansion work with the Muppets, more so than when it’s a straightforward adaptation? I think the explanation comes in lyrics from the attraction’s iconic theme song, “Grim Grinning Ghosts:” “Now don’t close your eyes and don’t try to hide / or a silly spook may sit by your side / Shrouded in a daft disguise / They pretend to terrorize / Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize.” What the movies get wrong is that the ghosts aren’t meant to be intentionally scary, they’re just looking for some company!
The whole premise of the ride is that you’re taking an open house tour of Gracey Manor. For the majority of both films, the spirits very much don’t want the guests there… that is until, of course, you get to the ending. They are Disney films after all, so happy endings are standard operating procedure. Meanwhile, as soon as Gonzo and Pepe arrive at the mansion, the ghosts are welcoming in their own spooky way. They’re just happy to have guests at all! The reason the Muppets mesh so well with the vibe of the ride is that they operate in that same open-hearted way. On the The Muppet Show, the Muppets welcomed their guest stars with open arms, even if the feeling wasn’t always mutual. Heck, their big number is about how much they want our heroes to join them for all eternity. Even with a deathly chill in the air, it’s enough to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling.
But what are heroes without a villain? Of all the haunts in The Haunted Mansion, there’s one that’s more malicious than the usually friendly frights. That’s another issue the films have struggled with. In the 2003 movie, it’s an original character not seen in the ride, while in the more recent version, it’s the Hatbox Ghost, who wants to gain power in the mortal realm by collecting souls. But in the attraction, the Hatbox Ghost just shows a trick by making his head appear in the hatbox. He’s more of a prankster than a terror; that’s why Fozzie Bear works as his adaptor. The really unnerving one is Constance Hatchaway, aka the Bride, who makes no secret of her love of her husbands and her love of murder. And which project gets this right? Another point to Muppets Haunted Mansion. Taraji P. Henson plays the role with equal parts amorosity and menace, which is just the right blend for the material. Constance is genuinely dangerous because you don’t know if she truly loves Pepe or she just sees the king prawn as her next target. That’s a scary kind of love.
In all fairness, both movies clearly have a great deal of affection for the ride. It’s a real challenge in adapting a theme park attraction into a film to find the balance between wholly embracing what’s come before and making a feature-length story that goes beyond what we know. If we just want a straight-up rendition of the ride, we can book a trip to Anaheim, Orlando, or Tokyo and experience it the way it was originally intended. But if you want the one that has the most reverence and utilizes more of the source material, the Muppets win hands-down, and that’s nothing to say boo to.
*Except when it’s Christmas, which according to Disneyland, runs from August to January.
**Pun conveniently not intended
***The human one, not the blue one with the hook-like nose.
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by Matthew Soberman – firstname.lastname@example.org