Disney has frequently been criticized for under-utilizing The Muppets since they purchased them in 2004. Muppets Wizard of Oz was the first official Muppets production under Disney’s Muppet Studio banner, though that was already in the works prior to the acquisition. That was followed by web series like From the Balcony and The Muppets Kitchen with Cat Cora, television specials like Studio DC: Almost Live on Disney Channel and A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa, all of which failed to really capture the pre-Disney Muppet magic.
The House of Mouse went all in with the franchise with 2011’s feature film The Muppets, which was Jason Segel’s love letter to The Muppet Show. While the film was a commercial success (becoming the highest grossing film in the franchise’s history) and garnered favorable reviews, the Muppets were secondary characters in their own film and most characters from the television series Muppets Tonight, such as Clifford, Jonny Fiama, Pepé the King Prawn and Bobo, had diminished roles or were absent all together. Muppets Most Wanted made big strides to rectify those issues, and was definitely a step in the right direction, though it still didn’t quite live up to its potential.
After a major step backward with the poorly received short-lived The Office-inspired ABC series The Muppets, Disney started to right the ship with last year’s improv-style Disney+ series Muppets Now!, which up to this point, has been the closest the studio has gotten to the Jim Henson-era Muppets.
I’m happy to say that with Disney+’s Muppets Haunted Mansion, the ship has not only been righted, but it has put the franchise at full sail ahead. Muppets Haunted Mansion is a thoroughly entertaining offering that returns the Muppets to their former glory.
The story has Gonzo, who has found himself insecure about his “The Gonzo the Great” title, accepting an invitation to spend the night in the famed Haunted Mansion, which happens to be the location of the last trick of Gonzo’s favorite magician, the Great MacGuffin, before his untimely disappearance. Tagging along is Pepé, who has joined for the sole purpose of hobnobbing with celebrities (despite the fact that there is no actual party).
Gonzo has become one of the most three-dimensional characters of the Muppet gang, thanks in part to his starring role in 1999’s Muppets from Space. He also has the advantage of still being performed by Dave Goelz, who has been performing the character since 1976. Bill Barretta has become one of the most invaluable Muppet performers in recent years, admirably taking over a few Jim Henson characters like Rowlf and Dr. Teeth, but also performing what is arguably the best “modern era” Muppet character, Pepé . He is not only an incredibly funny and fleshed out character, but he proves to be a perfect companion for Gonzo (Rizzo the Rat previously held that distinction, but since the departure of Steve Whitmire, no one has apparently been able to successfully take on the character). Pepé has become one of the main Muppet characters, and this special showcases why.
The rest of the Muppets gang are primarily in supporting roles. We see Kermit, Scooter, Fozzie, Miss Piggy and the rest of a gang briefly in a Facetime call with Gonzo in the beginning of the special, but they all return (and then some) in double roles as some of the ghoulish ghosts that reside in the Haunted Mansion.
While the Muppets are the focus of the film, the real star is the Haunted Mansion itself. The special is chockablock full of references to the famed Disney Parks rides; Grim Grinning Ghosts, Madame Leota, the floating candelabra, the Stretching Room, even the Doom Buggies (and much, much more). Perhaps the greatest ride reference is the famous Ball Room scene, which is perfectly mashed up with the ‘At the Dance’ sketches from the original Muppet Show.
While the original disembodied voice of The Ghost Host was portrayed by the great Paul Frees, here he is played in the flesh by Will Arnett. Trying to cast a celebrity who can mimic the iconic baritone of Frees is an impossible task, so instead they went with a comedian with an equally recognizable voice, which was a wise decision. Other celebrities make appearances as well, such as Yvette Nicole Brown, John Stamos, Danny Trejo, Chrissy Metz, Darren Criss, Taraji P. Henson, and the late Ed Asner in his final role.
The only casting that is a miss, which was actually cast long before this special, is Matt Vogel as Kermit. Muppeteer Vogel was tapped to take over the iconic role when The Muppets Studio parted ways with Steve Whitmire in 2017. Whitmire took over Kermit when Jim Henson passed away in 1990, making him as recognizable in the role as Henson himself (particularly by the generations that grew up with him). Vogel is a tremendous performer and puppeteer, but he just doesn’t have Kermit’s voice down and it becomes a considerable distraction when he’s on screen (incidentally, I had the opportunity to talk with Whitmire in one of his first interviews after being let go, but his publicist was quite insistent that we not discuss the Muppets).
The Muppets have a history with the Disney parks, with their long-running Muppet*Vision 3D film at Hollywood Studios (one of Jim Henson’s last Muppets project before his death) and the recently cancelled Great Moments in American History, which was a live show located in the Liberty Square in which the Muppets recounted notable moments in Colonial America (the gang also visited the park in the 1990 TV special, The Muppets at Walt Disney World, but that was long before Disney purchased them). That said, I would love to see this association with the parks continue in future Disney+ specials. I could easily see Fozzie Bear in the Country Bears Jamboree, or Pigs in Space in Space Mountain, or Muppet takes on Expedition Everest, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or even an adaptation of their Great Moments in American History (I suspect Pirates of the Caribbean would be off limits).
After a rocky history with The Muppets, Disney has finally put the franchise back on track. Muppets Haunted Mansion is a delight for Muppets and Disney fans alike.
Muppets Haunted Mansion is a thoroughly entertaining offering that returns the Muppets to their former glory.