Warning: This review contains spoilers for Muppets Haunted Mansion, which is now available to stream on Disney+
A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article about the marketing for Muppets Haunted Mansion, and how the announcement of the cameos and the push from Disney+ didn’t fill me with a tonne of hope for what we’d be getting when the special dropped. It felt like Disney wasn’t sure how this thing would fair, so it put all its eggs in one basket and hoped Chrissie Metz’s fans would come to the party. And after seeing Muppets Haunted Mansion, I’m still just as confused, but now for another reason. Sure, Disney pushed Pat Sajak on us, which was weird, but was it necessary? Because, guys – Muppets Haunted Mansion is great.
I’ve always had a little trepidation going in to Muppet projects over the last decade or so. The 2011 film is fine, but in my opinion it’s the weakest of the theatrical Muppet movies. Muppets Most Wanted was excellent, but the public just didn’t seem to go for it, which has and continues to confuse me. I sometimes wonder if it confused Disney too, because after that they didn’t really know what to do with the characters. Within the space of six months, we had Muppet Moments on Disney Junior and then a prime time sitcom, the latter certainly not having the same tone as the former. Then there were some middling YouTube Thought of the Week clips, a Kermit kerfuffle, a few appearances here and there, and a spectacular live show that seemed to confirm that the new guys were fully capable of doing what their predecessors did if given the right material. So, The Muppets have been all over the shop with their varying degrees of quality, so I think I could be forgiven for having a slight fear that Muppets Haunted Mansion might not be that great.
So imagine my relief and utter joy when I watched the special a couple of weeks ago and found it to be a delight. Seriously – halfway through this special I had to tell someone how much I enjoyed it, but the only person online who I knew had seen it was co-writer and director Kirk Thatcher, so he got a long enthusiastic message from me that he seemed to appreciate. Muppets Haunted Mansion is interesting, visually appealing, funny, and most of all, it’s Muppety.
The special starts as Gonzo and Pepe are driven to a Halloween event at a haunted house by a Hearse Driver (A criminally underused Yvette Nicole Brown). Pepe believes it’s going to be filled with Hollywood A-Listers, but Gonzo is going because it’s the place his hero, The Great MacGuffin, disappeared 100 years ago. Upon arriving, they meet first The Caretaker (Darren Criss) and then their Ghost Host, played by the always fantastic Will Arnett. Gonzo and Pepe have to survive an entire night in this Haunted Mansion, where the unfamiliar and the familiar intersect – basically, a bunch of ghosts and monsters are going to try to get you, but they’re all going to look like your friends.
The night obviously goes awry as Gonzo deals with what it means to be The Great Gonzo, and Pepe is pulled in by The Bride, played by a brilliant (and frankly, a little scary) Taraji P. Henson. Both storylines offer the chance for this special to show everything it has, being funny, heartwarming, and spooky in parts.
Pepe’s story is definitely the side-plot to the special, but it’s where the bulk of the humour lies. Obviously when a lot of Muppet fans think of Gonzo, they think of Rizzo, which is absolutely fair enough. But since Steve Whitmire’s departure, Rizzo is yet to be recast, and honestly, the rightful heir to Gonzo’s second banana is Pepe, with the trio having done a lot together the last 20 years. Pepe has always been a little greedy, a little obsessed with stature, perhaps stemming from the fact that he’s a
shrimp King Prawn. And he’s always been one to go after the ladies. So naturally he falls victim to the beautiful and seductive Bride, who hynotises him with promises of love, affection and power, but secretly means to murder him after the wedding.
The wedding, aside from a hysterical Uncle Deadly as the officiant, has it’s own Greek Chorus, as previous grooms to The Bride try to warn Pepe about what’s going to occur, but in his hynotic state, he either cannot hear them, or just doesn’t care. These ghosts are a highlight of the special, containing wisecracks from Walter, Lew Zealand, Beauregard, a Penguin and… JOHNNY AND SAL!? Oh boy, don’t think I didn’t have to pick up my jaw from the floor when those two turned up, and especially when I realised that Brian Henson was back to play Sal. Johnny and Sal haven’t been seen since the Bohemian Rhapsody video in 2009, and Sal hasn’t had a speaking line since 2005. So these two coming back is a pretty big event, especially Brian hanging out for a day or two. There have been unsubstantiaed rumours about the Henson’s feuding with Disney, and hopefully this puts that rubbish to bed.
Gonzo’s storyline is where the heart of the special comes from, as he grapples with what it means to have The Great ahead of your name (or behind it – I’ve never known which is official). Kermit, hanging out dressed as Miss Piggy because of comedy, tells him that he doesn’t need to always strive to be The Great Gonzo, he’s pretty great as just regular Gonzo. I’ll quickly pause to say this iteration of Kermit is one of the less entertaining aspects of Muppets Haunted Mansion. He’s just a little down in the dumps, worrying about Gonzo, which doesn’t really feel earned – you’re at a party with Scooter Elvis dude, chill out. That said, there’s another iteration of Kermit I’ll talk about shortly that’s far more fun to watch.
Gonzo struggled in Muppets From Space about what he is, only to learn he was an alien, in a movie that not only us Muppet fans, but even Dave Goelz himself, don’t consider to be canon. This time he’s strugging with that Greatness part of his name, which has some similarities to the 1999 movie, and even to the episode of the 2015 series ‘Going, Going, Gonzo’, the best episode of that series’ short run. Gonzo being soulful and ponderous is one of my favorite parts about him, and it has to be said that I don’t know if it would have felt as powerful in this special if it wasn’t for Dave Goelz. Dave is the last remaining regular original Muppet performer, and at 75, he’s still going strong. Yes, Gonzo might move a little slower now, but give the man a break, he’s still putting in the effort, and Gonzo still feels like the same Gonzo that ate a tire in early episodes of The Muppet Show. Dave was on set as much as needed, even though this special filmed during COVID, and Dave is considered high-risk. I think that goes to show how much he cares not only for the character, but how much he liked the script, that he put the work in and performed Gonzo with all his might.
Gonzo’s fascination with The Great MacGuffin is a fun idea, but the reveal that Will Arnett’s Ghost Host is MacGuffin is played as a giant surprise, when it was kind of spoiled fairly early on with a poster of the mysterious magician. That said, perhaps it was meant to be that way, considering the name MacGuffin literally means in film terms ‘An object in a story that drives the plot’. It’s Gonzo’s willingness to find answers about his lost hero that bring him to Room 999, which turns out to be Room 666, and leads us to by far the scariest part of the entire special – Old, Withered Gonzo. Holy cow, what nightmare fuel did you unleash upon us, Kirk!? This puppet build does what it sets out to do, and makes us extremely uncomfortable and kind of weirded out as Gonzo faces his own mortality and what it means to be The Great Gonzo, and if I never seen that puppet again it’ll still be too soon (I’m told Dave got a wild joy out of it). I really wish I could include a screenshot of it, but Disney+ doesn’t allow screenshots, unfortunately.
I’ve talked a lot about Gonzo and Pepe, the stars of the special, but heck, it’s Muppets Haunted Mansion after all, so let’s talk about some Muppets! As themselves, they’re all hanging out at a Halloween party. Kermit and Piggy are dressed as each other. Scooter is dressed as Elvis. Fozzie is a banana. But we don’t spend a lot of time with these iterations, instead they feature far more as the Ghosts of The Haunted Mansion. The Ghost Host tells Gonzo and Pepe that everything will look familiar to them, as the ghosts tempt them in the disguise of their friends. And this is where they really get to have a lot of fun.
Those familiar with the Haunted Mansion ride will know that one of the featured scenes is the Grand Hall, where ghosts enjoy a lavish party. That’s where most of our Muppets get their chance to shine, performing a rousing musical number and show as a funeral for Gonzo and Pepe, who they expect to soon join them in their ghostly forms. Kermit, feeling much more himself than his alive counterpart, hosts the show, giving Matt Vogel a chance to have a lot of fun with the character. I’m not getting into it again, but I still firmly believe Matt is the man for the job of Kermit, and he’s in fine form here as Kermit the Ghost. Fozzie appears as the Hatbox ghost, and the scariest part of the evening might be his teeth. Miss Piggy appears as the head of Madame Leota in a crystal ball, in a small but fun role. Then the other characters are scattered throughout, including Statler and Waldorf inside one of the ride’s famous Doom Buggies. There are a lot of background Muppets who get a line or two, Rowlf plays the piano a little, and we even get the resurrection of a long dead sketch – At The Dance from The Muppet Show. You’ll also see Dr Phil Van Neuter, and even Robin sitting on the table, in clothes very similar to that of Tiny Tim from Muppets Christmas Carol. Perhaps he DID die after all…
There was one glaring part of this special that didn’t hit as well as the others, and that’s the cameos. Now, I’m not including Will Arnett, Taraji P. Henson, Darren Criss or Yvette Nicole Brown here, and I’d argue that John Stamos was an exception, but the other cameos felt a little unnecessary. Considering the massive push Disney+ made, I was expecting them to have some sort of bigger role, but most of them didn’t even speak, and had more to do in the credits than in the special itself. The busts were CGI’d to a point of almost unrecognition, meaning we only knew that was Craig Robinson because Disney+ told us that three weeks ago. Granted, they didn’t detract from the special as I feared they might, but I did finish their scene and think ‘That was it? Disney promoted them for their 2 seconds of screen time?’. I haven’t seen Sasheer Zamata so underused since her SNL days!
Muppets Haunted Mansion is absolutely a special that will reward rewatches, with a lot of references to the famous Disney parks ride and plenty of Muppet references too (I’d argue you’d do well to watch a ride through of the ride on YouTube before your next rewatch, it certainly helped me). There’s background gags galore, little details in the statues and paintings, and enough that you’ll absolutely want to watch this again in a couple of weeks, and then again next year, and the year after that until the sun swallows the Earth. Kirk Thatcher knows what he’s doing when it comes to The Muppets, and his script with co-writer Kelly Younger and Bill Barretta has a Muppety feel that I’m sure audiences are going to love. This is the first production that Vice President of Muppets Studio Leigh Slaughter has undertook from start to finish, and I’m left feeling hopeful that The Muppets are under a team that legitimately cares about their legacy and what happens to them next.
I’ve got to assume you’ve watched Muppets Haunted Mansion, but I encourage you to watch it again tomorrow, and then again this Halloween season. I’d put this special in the top 3 things they’ve done this past decade, and man, it’s nice to see them back in form.
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