After much anticipation, the new TV special Muppets Haunted Mansion will be available on Disney+ on October 8. What follows is our not-too-spoilery review. Stay tuned for more exciting coverage of the special (and a spoilery review) later this week!

Muppets Haunted Mansion is kinda scary. That’s one of my favorite things about it. The Haunted Mansion ride at the Disney theme parks has traumatized generations of children over the years, and some of the best classic Muppet productions (Muppet Christmas Carol, the Alice Cooper Muppet Show) have embraced spookiness. So it’s only right that this TV special, a hybrid of both, allows itself to be frightening as well as kooky.

For example, most of the ghost characters in this acknowledge that they are dead folks who used to be alive, and many of them explain how they died. In an amusing way, but still. The playfully morbid spirit (and I DO mean “spirit!”) of the ride is definitely present, and the writers have a ton of fun with it. The special has the potential to make younger kids cower under their parents’ ottoman when they sit down to watch, and I think that’s just terrific.

You know who’s not easily scared? The Great Gonzo. He prides himself on doing all kinds of brave stunts, which is why this Halloween he’s accepted an invitation to spend the night in the world’s most haunted mansion. It means he’s going to miss Kermit’s big Halloween costume party where all his friends are, but hey, it’s worth it to prove himself by succeeding at the Halloween Challenge. And oddly enough, all the ghosts he’s going to see will resemble his friends, due to the supernatural properties of the mansion.

We’ve seen a lot of different versions of Gonzo over the years as he’s evolved, but the guy who lives for thrills and danger is one of the oldest and purest characterizations. When we first heard about this special I thought it was a surprising choice that Gonzo is the main character, but on further consideration, it’s pretty logical. It makes more sense for Gonzo to be the one to test the limits of his bravery than Kermit or Fozzie. (Although I could see Piggy taking the Halloween Challenge. That would have been fun.) It’s so rare for Gonzo to be the lead that seeing him at the center of all these goings-on is exciting on its own.

Gonzo’s sidekick for the night is Pepe, which has caused some discussion among Muppet fans. It’s reasonable to assume that if Steve Whitmire were still employed by Disney’s Muppets, Gonzo would be accompanied by Rizzo instead of the prawn. Is Pepe an acceptable substitute? Does he even do Pepe stuff, or could you just as easily swap out Rizzo without a noticeable difference?

Well, some of Pepe’s wisecracks could have been delivered by Rizzo. But it’s actually more convincing for Pepe to be the second Muppet going into the mansion, especially because he thinks he’s going to find partying celebrities inside. Rizzo would probably be too spooked to spend a night in a haunted house, and he’d rather go eat all the snacks at Kermit’s party. Pepe has some funny stuff of his own, and even ends up playing a role in the story, so he’s a fine second banana.

Muppets Haunted Mansion is a special that wants to be seen by everyone with a Disney+ subscription, of course, but it’s the Muppet fans and the Haunted Mansion fans who are really going to be paying attention. (I imagine there’s a lot of overlap with those demographics.)

If you tune in to Muppets Haunted Mansion hoping for a lot of references to the ride, you won’t be disappointed. There are so many characters and gags and moments from the ride incorporated into the special, and just when you think they must have run out of stuff to reference, they bring in more. It’s a reminder of just how rich the classic ride is.

And if you tune in to Muppets Haunted Mansion hoping to catch glimpses of a lot of your favorite Muppets, you probably also won’t be disappointed. If you’ve watched the trailer, you already have an idea, but this mansion is packed to the rafters with A-list, B-list, and C-list Muppets. Is that Robin and Big Mean Carl and Phil van Neuter and Johnny Fiama & Sal? And the goat from Muppets Now? Yes, all your favorites are there! In a sequence that serves as the centerpiece of the whole special, they all do a musical number in the mansion’s famous ballroom.

So the special totally lives up to its title in that it’s full of Muppets and it constantly reminds you of the Haunted Mansion. In fact, it devotes so much time to recreating scenes from the ride and providing quick cameos from Muppets (and lots of celebrities) that there’s not a lot of time left for jokes that aren’t references to the ride, or asides where Muppets are commenting on their own roles in the show and how much screen time they have. I loved all the “scary” stuff when I was watching the special, but when it was over, I looked back and said “Wait, were there any new jokes in that?” (Toward the end there’s some time devoted to the “story” and especially Gonzo’s arc, which is interesting but feels a little perfunctory.) It’s full of tricks and treats, but it’s not much more substantial than a ghost.

Muppets Haunted Mansion will be fun to revisit it when Halloween rolls around again in the future. Like it’s inspiration, it’s an entertaining ride. Speaking of which, fans have been speculating about how cool it would be if it inspired a seasonal overlay on the theme park ride, and yeah, that would be excellent. The fact that pretty much every element of the ride is represented here means the Muppet writers have already done most of the work. All Disney has to do is build a few dozen new AudioAnimatronics… Ghost Rowlf, Madame Pigota, Gauzey Bear. Simple, right?

Additional thoughts:

  • Visually, this is unlike any other Muppet production. In most scenes, most of the Muppets onscreen are ghosts, which means they have a blue glowy aura. At times, the special starts to feel excessively special effects-y, but because it takes place in a haunted house it helps with the creepy, supernatural feeling.
  • There are, in fact, a LOT of celebrities, but none of their appearances feel intrusive. Most of them come and go just fast enough for you to say “Wait a minute, wasn’t that what’s-his-face?”
  • That goat just might be the next breakout Muppet star.

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by Ryan Roe – Ryan@ToughPigs.com

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