Muppets Haunted Mansion is a new Halloween special on Disney+ that’s based on the theme park ride at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and beyond. This review covers the good and bad of the new show, if it does justice to the iconic attraction and Muppet humor, and whether if it’s worth your time.
Muppets Haunted Mansion has big shoes to fill. For starters, it’s Muppets and Haunted Mansion, two heavyweights in their respective arenas. On top of that, it’s a holiday special following up on the Muppet Christmas Carol. Finally, it treads in the creative footsteps of Eddie Murphy’s modern movie masterpiece.
On second thought, perhaps those last shoes are doll-sized and maybe the bar is considerably lower. Since that 2003 film, there have been unrealized visions for another Haunted Mansion movie, while the Muppets have largely languished under Disney’s control. For some, the idea of combining Muppets and Haunted Mansion is a dream–it feels like this special was made specifically for me–but also had the potential to be a nightmare if we remove the rose-colored glasses.
To begin, Muppets Haunted Mansion finds Gonzo the Great and Pepe the Prawn skipping the annual Muppets Halloween party to embark upon a challenge: staying overnight in the creepy mansion where legendary magician the Great MacGuffin disappeared exactly 100 years ago. Gonzo the Great is fearless, finding the purported challenge to be a walk in the park, whereas Pepe has some reservations.
This is the set-up, a framework of sorts for a variety of vignettes and sequences. In a way, the special is structured a lot like the Haunted Mansion itself. There’s some semblance of a story, but you’re largely just going along for the ride.
One of the hallmarks of Muppets humor has always been parody, with the gang deftly inserting themselves into literary masterpieces, history, and more. The Muppet Christmas Carol is an exemplar of this, as that holiday classic is at once rife with Muppet wit and catchy songs, while also being one of the most faithful adaptations of the Dickens novella. It’s both remarkable and inexplicable, really.
The same is true with Muppets Haunted Mansion, although the writers have wisely foregone any attempts at an exacting adaptation of the iconic Walt Disney World and Disneyland attraction. Eschewing a ride-through remake, Muppets Haunted Mansion instead introduces the Great MacGuffin as a clever reference, wink and a nod to the audience about the special’s storytelling intentions, and a smart example of Muppet humor.
Even throwing the ride format out the window, Muppets Haunted Mansion remains dutifully committed to faithfully adapting its source material. This instead occurs with a nonstop barrage of visuals, lines pulled directly from the attraction script, character cameos, and more.
The references are wide-ranging and diverse, with something for those who have ridden Haunted Mansion once or over one-hundred times. Many of these are “Muppetized,” with a good example being the special’s twist on the stretching room portraits. One of the most zany and hilarious moments feels targeted directly at me, too. (I don’t want to spoil it, but it reads as a reference to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or Big Thunder Ranch. You’ll know it when you see it.)
At no point does any of this feel contrived, overly referential, or meta. There’s nothing that can be simply dismissed as fan service or pandering. Rather, the Muppets leverage most of these references to humorous effect, blending something borrowed with something new for a unique end result. Sure, some of it might be lost on those who aren’t fans of the Haunted Mansion, but rewarding more knowledgeable viewers has always been the Muppets’ style.
This is the Muppets humor at its best. In Disney’s years of stewardship over the Muppets, their humor has been misunderstood or misapplied more often than not. Some of the resulting shows have felt overly cynical, less timeless and too topical, or tonally wrong.
To be fair, this is a delicate needle to thread. I’m not even sure you’d find consensus among Muppet fans as to which shows hit or miss the mark. The Muppets humor is a mix of showbiz satire, sarcasm, self-awareness, and sentimentality–all effused with a sense of irreverence, but also heart and wholesomeness, while never coming across as mean-spirited. Balancing those sometimes competing elements and suppressing the cynicism is tricky, but it’s an “I know it when I see it” type of thing. Muppets Haunted Mansion is it.
That’s what makes Muppets Haunted Mansion such a compelling creation. It shows an earnest respect for the legacies of both Haunted Mansion and the Muppets, balancing the disparate styles of each in a truly impressive manner. The special does complete justice to both.
This was our hope going in, but we didn’t want to get carried away with hype given the Muppets’ recent unevenness. However, they are now under the purview of Walt Disney Imagineering, which presented promise in terms of how the special would pay its respects to Haunted Mansion and the Muppets.
Then there’s the team behind this special. Director Kirk Thatcher has been writing for the Muppets for the better part of two decades. He co-wrote the script with Kelly Younger and Bill “Pepe” Barretta, both of whom were on the story team for Muppets Now.
Whether it’s the marriage with Imagineering, the writers finally finding their groove, or a lack of corporate meddling from Disney in trying to force the Muppets into being more relevant and more modern (that’s my bet!), Muppets Haunted Mansion finds the sweet spot of Muppet humor.
Likewise, Muppets Haunted Mansion does a good job handling celebrity appearances. Will Arnett’s humor melds perfectly with the Muppets, and it almost feels criminal that he hasn’t appeared alongside them before. As a huge Arrested Development fan, I can even hear Lucille derisively referring to G.O.B. as a muppet, and it’s just *chef’s kiss* that Arnett plays a magician in Muppets Haunted Mansion.
There are plenty of other celebrity appearances, but only Darren Criss, Taraji P. Henson, and John Stamos are noteworthy. If anything, the laundry list of other cameos you see in the images here are too brief and fleeting–I had no idea that half of these stars appeared in the special until the credits. It is nice to see Danny Trejo (a personal favorite), Craig Robinson, Pat Sajak, and the late Ed Asner–I just wish each had larger roles.
Honestly, the same could be said for the core Muppets crew. There’s relatively little Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Rowlf, Scooter, Animal, or Statler and Waldorf in Muppets Haunted Mansion. Additionally, Pepe the Prawn once again takes on an outsized role–one that I happily would’ve rather seen filled by Rizzo the Rat. However, Pepe is perfectly fine here–much better than many of his other appearances.
With a runtime under an hour, there’s already a lot stuffed into this special, and there’s no good solution for my (very minor) complaint about screen time. That is, other than extending Muppets Haunted Mansion to feature length to give both the characters and story a bit of breathing room.
Then there are the three new original songs that lend themselves nicely to the Haunted Mansion framework, and feature sly nods to the attraction’s Grim Grinning Ghosts, Beauty and the Beast, and past Muppet numbers. The tunes of these are catchy, but they’re not instant classics a la anything from the Muppet Christmas Carol. (Whether they’re memorable will require repeat viewings–an inevitability–to confirm.)
The nods to Beauty and the Beast (in particular, “Be Our Guest”) is about the closest the Disney+ special gets to synergy–well, if you exclude the core premise of the special, in the first place. And I’d argue that a more direct parody of “Be Our Guest” would’ve actually strengthened that musical number. Regardless, it’s nice to see some restraint here, and this not being a vehicle for gratuitously plugging other Disney+ content.
Ultimately, Muppets Haunted Mansion delivers in every meaningful way, and sees the Muppets in their peak form. It’s arguably the strongest Muppets production since the mid-1990s (dethroning another theme park collaboration, “The Muppets Present… Great Moments in American History” at Magic Kingdom), nailing the style of both its core components.
While not perfect, Muppets Haunted Mansion exceeded our high expectations. There were dozens of ways a Disney+ special bringing together the Muppets and Haunted Mansion could’ve failed, and this fell into none of those pitfalls. It does complete justice to both, with sharp wit, charming characters, and engaging scenes. It’s a new classic that we’ll be revisiting each Halloween, just like we do during the holidays with the Muppet Christmas Carol. At the end of the day, my biggest complaint is that I was left wanting more of Muppets Haunted Mansion–that’s hardly a bad problem to have, and not a way I’ve felt about other recently Muppets endeavors. Muppets Haunted Mansion is an E-Ticket Disney+ special–a fun ride that you won’t want to miss!
Have you seen Muppets Haunted Mansion? What do you think of the new Disney+ special? Is it an instant Halloween, Muppets, or Disney Parks classic? Anything you loved or hated about the show? Think it does justice to the Muppets humor and/or Haunted Mansion’s style? Agree or disagree with our review? Any questions? We love hearing from readers, so please share any other thoughts or questions you have in the comments below!