Today, The Muppets Haunted Mansion hits Disney+, and while not exactly as frightful for us as it is for Pepe and Gonzo, it certainly is delightful. For the first time in a while, it feels like the sort of collaboration Disney and the Henson Company have been looking for to make the Muppets really feel at home at the house of mouse.
Haunted Mansion — ostensibly a collaboration that sees Gonzo and Pepe ditch Kermit’s annual Halloween party to instead spend a night in the Haunted Mansion of Disney Park fame — is the latest in a long line of Disney’s more recent attempts to bring the Muppets in line with its own TV plans. The hit-and-miss revival at ABC tried to cram a Muppets Show vibe into a contemporary comedy show setting, and while parts of its bold experiment to dive into the messy lives of the Muppets beyond their show were intriguing, it ultimately didn’t connect. The first Muppets project for Disney+ meanwhile, Muppets Now, traded the character drama the previous revival had for skits and celebrity cameos, and while still notably better received, also lacked that special something if only because its bite-sized anthology format didn’t really allow for it.
To be fair, it’s hard to compete with the Muppets’ long TV history — The Muppet Show in particular — which is such a special, storied thing in the first place. The Muppets’ particular blend of antics, earnest character work, and celebrity metatext works best when each of those elements is given the time to breathe and intermingle. Yes, them goofing around is great, but The Muppets Show was more than just gags, it was about the interplay between the Muppets as characters that we saw develop as people working on a show, but also as the personalities that exist to stand alongside their celebrity guests as, well, The Muppets.
Muppets Haunted Mansion then, at long last it seems, really gets this. Primarily narrative-driven, even with its bonanza cast of celebrity appearances, walks a wickedly funny tightrope. Will Arnett, Taraji P. Henson, Darren Criss, and Yvette Nicole Brown get the meatiest roles, but crucially they are there as characters rather than themselves, alongside a truly daunting list of celebrity cameos to boot. The special is smart enough not to make the metatext of the classic theme park ride its focus — for fans, it is bursting with sight gags, in-jokes, and Easter Eggs — and never forgets that beyond the Muppets’ joyful sense of feel-good humour there’s a ton of heart.
Muppets Haunted Mansion does this by largely paring down the number of Muppets it needs to focus on. Pepe is largely left to wander about the mansion in search of celebrities and a love life, playing right into the spectral, bloodied hands of one of the ride’s famous characters, Constance Hatchaway. So really, the spotlight is on Gonzo, who has eschewed attending Kermit’s traditional Halloween bash to try and survive for one night in the Haunted Mansion, the next big stunt for the thrillseeking Gonzo the Great who claims to have no fears. Nothing in the Mansion really bothers him, mostly because it’s a lot of singing ghosts and the occasional floating candlestick, as Arnett’s Ghost Host guides him through its halls. But when he comes across the dreaded room 999 (which, of course, inverts its sign the minute he closes its door behind him), Gonzo is faced with no ghosts or ghouls, no big horrors, not even an ax-murderer trying to marry him: but a mirror.
The mirror — and an ancient, decrepit version of Gonzo reflected back at him — shows him a glimpse at Kermit’s party, where all his friends are having a good time while he’s trapped silently on the other side. Gonzo’s quest to constantly prove himself to be Gonzo the Great has pushed him away from his friends, even as Kermit tells him (and reminds Scooter just in time for mirror-Gonzo to overhear) that he doesn’t need to be “Gonzo the Great” to be great in the eyes of the people who care about him the most. The plight of Haunted Mansion is not that Gonzo and Pepe have to survive the night and make it out before dawn, but that Gonzo just has to learn that his friends care about him? That right there is some Muppet Show spirit, alive and well, no matter how many celebrity ghosts Gonzo and Pepe have to run through to learn it.
It’s what makes Haunted Mansion truly sing, alongside the usual gags and, thanks to Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem, one pretty killer cover of Dancing in the Moonlight. It feels like Disney letting the Henson Company do what it does best with the Muppets — bringing the heart alongside the fourth-wall, celeb-jokes, and letting them play in the world of Disney, rather than the other way around. It might not be the spookiest special of the season, but it’s probably going to be one of its best.