Muppets Haunted Mansion is a perfectly harmless yet tedious streaming special that recycles the old Muppets formula to diminishing returns.
On paper, Disney+’s Muppets Haunted Mansion special has all the ingredients needed to recapture that old Muppet magic: original songs, a zany premise, celebrity guests, and a lean runtime to keep the jokes flying. Yet, as with so many of the Muppet projects released since Disney acquired the brand in 2004, it feels like something is missing. The late Jim Henson continuously innovated The Muppets and was never content to repeat himself. Thing is, the franchise has stagnated creatively under the House of Mouse’s supervision. As a result, you end up with stuff like Muppets Haunted Mansion — a perfectly harmless yet tedious offering that recycles the classic Muppets formula to diminishing returns.
Muppets Haunted Mansion centers on Gonzo and Pepe the King Prawn accepting a challenge to stay overnight in the eponymous haunted house, only to discover that’s much easier said than done. Gonzo spent years sharing a double act with Rizzo the Rat until the latter’s original puppeteer, Steve Whitmore, left the franchise in 2017. However, the Gonzo/Pepe pairing is less effective and seems born out of necessity. The special further matches the duo and their googly-eyed peers with a game cast of comedians and all-stars — Will Arnett, Yvette Nicole Brown, Darren Criss, Taraji P. Henson, and many others in cameos — though they too fail to scale the heights of the best human stars of Muppet movies and TV shows past.
Thankfully, in spite of being based on one of Disney’s most beloved theme park attractions, Muppets Haunted Mansion doesn’t feel like a soulless exercise in cross-media synergy. As much as it nods to specific aspects of the Haunted Mansion ride, the setting acts as more of a backdrop for the Muppets’ shenanigans and less of a glorified commercial for Disney itself. Distractingly, however, several of the Muppets portray themselves as well as the mansion’s ghostly inhabitants — most of whom are bland variations on the Muppets’ personas. Where previous movies would pretend that Kermit and the gang were real actors playing characters in a story, Muppets Haunted Mansion fumbles this meta-gag by never explaining why two versions of the characters exist.
Granted, it’s a little silly to complain about logic in a Muppet project, but Muppets Haunted Mansion‘s failure to abide by even the simplest of narrative rules is a reflection of the special’s slapdash nature. Despite being the first Muppet production shot primarily in an LED Volume — using state-of-the-art LED screens to create its virtual sets — it looks cheap. The practical puppets don’t mesh with the digital backdrops and the special’s musical sequences are often filmed in a flat, static style, save for the most dynamic number, “Life Hereafter.” As for the songs themselves, they’re melodic enough, though nothing that’s going to stick in your head afterward.
There are things to like about Muppets Haunted Mansion. The script by co-writer/director Kirk Thatcher uses Gonzo’s relentless need to perform increasingly dangerous stunts to teach a meaningful lesson: one’s value as a person is not determined by what one accomplishes. It’s a message that frankly applies to adults as much as it does to kids. Thatcher has also worked on Muppet projects dating back to the mid-1990s and has a clear appreciation for the way the franchise has always blended earnestness with irreverent humor.
Yet, as evidenced by Muppets Haunted Mansion and the tepid responses to his Disney-era offerings like Muppets Now, Thatcher struggles at balancing these elements while staying in the “Safe for Toddlers” zone where he says Disney wants the franchise. This is likely why anyone who criticizes a Disney-era Muppets project sounds unavoidably grumpy: they know these characters are just as capable of making your sides split with laughter as they are of breaking your heart. So, it’s frustrating when projects like Muppets Haunted Mansion rehash the same comedy bits as earlier Muppet films and series, rather than finding more inventive ways of keeping the brand evergreen.
The short of it: kids and select adults may get some chuckles out of the Muppets’ first-ever Halloween special, but even they might have a hard time recalling what happened when it’s over.
Muppets Haunted Mansion begins streaming on Oct. 8 on Disney+.
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