Review: Muppets Haunted Mansion 2021 TV Special
Throughout the years, The Muppets have established themselves as staples of Christmas programming. They have starred in at least a half-dozen stellar television Christmas specials (including 1987’s “A Muppet Family Christmas,” the last Christmas special that Jim Henson took part in before his death and one that remains damnably elusive due to rights and licensing issues) and a big-time theatrical feature that has become a yuletide classic, 1992’s “The Muppet Christmas Carol.” But incredibly, they have never tackled Halloween before. There were plenty of near-misses along the way, including “Muppet Monster Adventure” (which eventually became a PlayStation game in 2000), but a spooky Muppets outing remained just out of reach – until now. “Muppets Haunted Mansion,” debuting on Disney+ October 8 and taking inspiration from the classic Disney Parks attraction, is, incredibly, worth the wait. It’s a spooky, fun treat that will undoubtedly turn into an annual favorite and stands as the ideal partnership between Disney and the Muppets.
In “Muppets Haunted Mansion,” daredevil Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and trusty sidekick Pepe (Bill Barretta) are drawn into a mystery when they agree to spend the night in the Haunted Mansion, the Disney attraction that first opened in Disneyland in 1969. A famous magician went missing there many years before, and Gonzo, out of thrills after years of defying death, blows off a Halloween party being thrown by his friends Kermit (Matt Vogel) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) for the opportunity of some real scares. Of course, everything goes haywire and Gonzo learns some important lessons about friendship and the real values of Halloween.
As far as set-ups go, “Muppets Haunted Mansion” is ideal. For one, it allows the Muppet characters to play “themselves” at the beginning of the special, and also gives them the leniency to portray famous characters from the actual attraction (Fozzie is the Hatbox Ghost, etc.). Co-writer/director Kirk Thatcher, a longtime Henson associate who has directed recent Christmas and Thanksgiving specials, has said that he sees the Muppets like Monty Python – a comedy troupe that can be placed into different scenarios and given different roles. And it’s fun to see him play with that idea here.
“Muppets Haunted Mansion” also provides a framework loose enough that guest stars can pop in and out without it ever becoming distracting or gimmicky. Folks like Craig Robinson and longtime Disney fan Pat Sajak (who owns a lavish home on Disney property in Florida) appear as singing busts in the Mansion; Danny Trejo and Ed Asner (in one of his final performances) show up as ghosts. And there are bigger, meatier roles for other actors, too – Will Arnett has the biggest role as the Ghost Host, a character heard but never seen in the original ride; while Taraji P. Henson plays the mysterious (and murderous) Bride intent on making Pepe her next victim, while Darren Criss plays the cowardly caretaker and John Stamos (another big Disney guy; you used to be able to spot his house in the Hollywood Hills by the giant, vintage Disneyland “D” outside) shows up as, well, himself.
And there is enough of a framework to keep the narrative going, particularly when it slides into its finale and splits up our main characters, with Gonzo looking to uncover the truth about the Mansion (and himself) and Pepe seduced by the killer Bride. Plus, there are a handful of swinging Muppets musical numbers (including a particularly memorable sequence that riffs on “Be Our Guest” from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast”).
Maybe the most impressive thing about “Muppets Haunted Mansion” is how it works as a straightforward Halloween special but is even more rewarding if you are a Muppets super-fan or a Haunted Mansion super-fan (if you are both, like me, then it is truly heavenly). There are so many references to the original attraction scattered throughout the special, including a number of deep cuts, and the same goes for Muppets acolytes. Most of them are too good to give away here, but there are so many characters, including several from forgotten projects like ABC’s “Muppets Tonight” (incredibly, Brian Henson returns) and newer characters like Joe from Legal (from the recent “Muppets Now” Disney+ series). It is truly a cornucopia of characters and a constant delight (although, of course, due to legal hang-ups, famous Muppet characters from other worlds like Count von Count from “Sesame Street,” fail to materialize).
Disney originally intended on acquiring the Muppets in the late 1980s but Jim Henson’s tragic death in 1990 halted that attempt. (Watch “The Muppets at Walt Disney World,” a special that aired 10 days before his death, for a fascinating look at the company and their intentions at the time. It ends with Mickey Mouse welcoming Kermit to the family.) When Disney finally gained control of the characters in 2004, it was a reduced portfolio and in the years since the company struggled with what, exactly, to do with the Muppets. There were big-screen features, a splashy ABC primetime mockumentary series, and a show on Disney+. Now the Muppets are under the control of Walt Disney Imagineering, the unit responsible for the company’s theme parks and attractions, and they have seemingly come up with the perfect way to revive the characters – pair them with a classic attraction, gently break new ground by pushing them into a holiday they’ve never attempted, and create the project using cutting edge technology (in this case, the interactive screen technology from “The Mandalorian”).
And while it is a terrific set-up, it would have been nothing without the wit and heart of the characters and the performers (particularly Goelz, now 75, who is responsible for a whole platoon of characters including Gonzo) – “Muppets Haunted Mansion” feels more classically Muppet-y than anything that has been produced in nearly 30 years. This is the special that many have been waiting for since Disney finally acquired the characters. And trust me, it was worth the wait. [A]