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Few brands are better suited to mine preexisting intellectual property than the Muppets. From A Christmas Carol to Treasure Island to countless parodic sketches and interludes, the synthetic ensemble has demonstrated a unique ability to smartly insert its myriad felt archetypes into almost any story.
Of course, because everybody knows the resilience of the Muppet brand, too often there’s an attempt to shoehorn the beloved characters into properties with a high concept but no actual story. That’s probably why Disney+’s new holiday special Muppets Haunted Mansion doesn’t quite feel like a cash-in violation, but definitely feels like a disappointment.
The Muppets are actually astonishingly well suited to the flexible outline offered by the popular Disney attraction, yet it’s a waste to make them subservient to a theme park ride rather than weaving the merits of a theme park ride around the Muppets. Muppets Haunted Mansion has almost no story, makes sparing use of its guest cast and, at only 49 minutes, still feels pointlessly padded, like getting stuck in a Doom Buggy with Gonzo and Pepe the King Prawn — surely not the worst fate in the world, but far from living up to ample potential.
Such as it is, the plot of Muppets Haunted Mansion revolves around Gonzo and Pepe attending a spooky evening at a haunted mansion (aka Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion) celebrating the 100th anniversary of the disappearance of Gonzo’s magical hero, the Great MacGuffin. Gonzo hopes to make it through a full night in the house to prove his own greatness, while Pepe hopes that the event will be packed with VIPs. One thing it surely won’t be packed with is fellow Muppets, because in order to attend the frightful gala, Gonzo and Pepe have to miss the Muppets’ annual Halloween costume party.
“Every year, same thing, same Muppets. We see them all the times,” Pepe opines, though it’s doubtful that fans will be quite so sanguine about a special that reduces Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Statler and Waldorf and the rest to negligible cameos. They’re there, but rarely deployed in a smart way.
The celebrity cameos are even more flimsy. You have Yvette Nicole Brown as the hearse driver who takes Gonzo and Pepe to their destination, Will Arnett well cast as the gravel-voiced Ghost Host and John Stamos as himself, kinda. We should all be vaguely relieved that neither Brown nor Stamos mention their new series Big Shot and that Disney didn’t lobby for a Hooch cameo.
There’s at least some value in getting Darren Criss to sing an overproduced variation on “Grim Grinning Ghosts” as a cemetery caretaker and in Taraji P. Henson’s turn as murderous bride Constance Hatchaway, which cannot be said for the likes of Danny Trejo, Chrissy Metz and Alfonso Ribeiro in one-line roles as blue-tinted ghosts. As another wandering spirit, the late Ed Asner doesn’t have a single line, and it wasn’t until the closing credits that I realized the swiveling busts were played by the likes of Justina Machado, Craig Robinson and Pat Sajak. I assume everybody had fun.
The people who made Muppets Haunted Mansion know the Muppets. Director Kirk R. Thatcher has been writing or directing Muppet-related productions for two decades, and he co-wrote the script with puppeteer-scribe Bill “Pepe” Barretta and Kelly Younger, who was part of the story team on Muppets Now. Yet most of the writing is taken directly from the theme park attraction, came tangentially from incidents featured in the attraction, or is meant to emulate the tone of the attraction’s script. Even if the Muppet sensibility of meta-commentary and aggressive punnery is completely compatible with that humor, this is the flimsiest version of it.
Anybody who knows me knows my love of puns and dad jokes, but there are punchlines here that aren’t even puns, like when Pepe says he’s looking forward to a swag bag or parting gifts and Gonzo replies, “You mean departing gifts.” That’s not a joke. I’m more partial to autopilot wordplay: Fozzie making cracks about playing to a dead crowd or Rowlf jokes about how he enjoys entertaining for skeletons because it means all the bones he can eat.
The special just meanders along, with the Ghost Host occasionally directing people to new rooms, without any endgame purpose for the story. Does Gonzo really need to learn a lesson about loving himself and facing fear? The guy has always seemed pretty confident. And Pepe’s there just because the new generation of Muppet creatives loves Pepe.
Muppets completists will enjoy Muppets Haunted Mansion on a very basic level, and I’m pretty sure younger viewers will find chuckles here and there. But there’s nothing to shake the suspicion that has built up in the past five or so years, going back to the short-lived ABC series and continuing with the most recent Disney+ series, that the caretakers of the brand don’t have any good ideas for what to do with the Muppets.
This one at least doesn’t make me sad, but I’ve never understood why a straightforward reboot of The Muppet Show was so complicated to develop. Meanwhile, anybody who has ever read an interview with Ted Lasso Emmy winner Brett Goldstein knows that he’s a Muppet fanatic. Why not give him a crack at the Muppets instead of just letting them meander through another piece of corporate cross-promotion?
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