As adorable as they are, The Muppets have always staked a claim to the spooky.
Guests like Vincent Price and Alice Cooper transformed their episodes of The Muppet Show from conventional madcap extravaganzas into inviting and macabre slices of family entertainment. They stand out as some of the highlights from that illustrious series, and it is a joy to see The Muppets return to a similar vein in time for Halloween. Muppets Haunted Mansion doesn’t quite hit those lofty heights, but it is still the closest that The Muppets have come in a long time to rediscovering their prime.
Turning down the opportunity to go to their friends’ annual Halloween party, Gonzo and Pepe take a taxi ride to a haunted mansion for what they think is a Halloween-themed adventure night. Instead, they are trapped inside the mansion by a mysterious host (Will Arnett) and have to escape. Inside, they discover ghostly apparitions resembling all their Muppet friends, and Pepe falls head over heels in love with a beautiful ghost bride (Taraji P. Henson).
The most recent TV outing for the beloved fuzzballs, Muppets Now, is a show that very obviously leans into the constraints of the pandemic. The takes on digital culture fall flat, as do many of the jokes, and the lack of music is jarring. Happily, they seem to have learned from their mistakes, and Muppets Haunted Mansion is a glorious return to form. There are plenty of musical numbers, dancing, and corny jokes in the classic Muppets style. One standout scene harks back to the characters’ golden days of variety entertainment (they even re-imagine one of their famous ballroom sketches). There are easter eggs and surprise character returns throughout the show, all going beyond simple nostalgia and instead verifying the show’s status as an authentic Muppets experience.
There is a delicate balancing act happening throughout Muppets Haunted Mansion. The show is trying to change up The Muppets’ image, but is doing so by going back to the kind of acts and situations that helped them become a classic source of entertainment. “Every year, same things, same Muppets. We see them all the time,” laments Pepe a few minutes in. in trying to break away from the same old thing, Gonzo and Pepe instead have to confront ghosts of television past, reintroducing the pair to their friends and to their show in a way that is distinctly recognisable but caked in creepiness and ghostly fun. Spectral song and dance is a means by which The Muppets can toy with an existential crisis that has plagued them for years; how to move on and be something new while keeping those things that they are most fondly remembered for.
Another indispensable part of the classic Muppets era is the celebrity guests. Will Arnett is exactly the kind of star who would be on The Muppet Show today if it was still running, and gives it both barrels here. Hamming it up as the ghostly host, he does a perfect job of being entertaining enough on his own without stealing the limelight away from the Muppet protagonists. Taraji P. Henson, as an evil ghost bride, is also on fine form, particularly during her musical number with Pepe. Other guest stars, however – including the late Ed Asner, to whom the TV special is dedicated – don’t get the screen time you might be hoping for (Danny Trejo’s only line in the whole show is “bring me some tacos”).
All the while, classic Muppet shenanigans are coated in a lighthearted haunted guise, albeit one that never leans too heavily or seriously into the scare factor. The show rediscovers those things that make up classic Muppets entertainment—including, crucially, a heart. Running underneath all the spookiness is a simple but touching message about valuing friendships and realising that your friends will love and respect you regardless of how many supposedly great things you are doing. It is a message that Gonzo, in an especially moving moment, is forced to confront before he is able to escape. The show alludes to something everybody is afraid of for different reasons; loneliness. Muppets Haunted Mansion is not an empty slice of family entertainment. It also presents you with something that both young children and adults will relate to in different but still affecting ways. This universal appeal is what has marked out The Muppets as special for years, and is all the confirmation you need that they are back in business.
Funny, heartfelt and just inventive enough to not feel like the same old thing again, Muppets Haunted Mansion stands proud as the best Muppets outing since their 2011 swansong film. It reminds you of the unique way that The Muppets can turn the scary and sinister into something fun and accessible, without sacrificing resonance.
Muppets Haunted Mansion is available to stream on Disney+
Words by James Hanton
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