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Surprise, you’re getting another Halloween review because I couldn’t wait another 365 days to talk about my favorite spooky special in recent years.

Muppets Haunted Mansion (or as I sometimes call it, “Muppets Most Haunted”) is one of those features that feels tailor-made me. It combines three things I love: the Muppets, Halloween, and the beloved Disney ride The Haunted Mansion. If you’re wondering why no one thought to do something like this sooner, well, they did. Brian Henson’s first idea for a Muppet project after his father Jim Henson passed away was a Halloween special. Though it didn’t pan out, The Muppets Studio toyed with doing something creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky with Kermit and the gang for years.

Remember this? It started as another tv special pitch but got reworked into a video game.

This brings us to the Muppets and Disney. The last time they both got together to do anything theme park-related was The Muppets Go To Disney World special, a couple of short-lived in-park shows, and MuppetVision 3-D. Cut to thirty years later and now Disney owns them. After the success of the 2011 film, the concept of a Muppets Halloween special was revived. Longtime Muppet director and writer Kirk Thatcher took the helm, and the result is magic.

I think Jambreeqi said it best when he called Muppets Haunted Mansion a variety show with a plot connecting the segments. It’s not unlike a classic episode of The Muppet Show made feature-length. There’s guest stars, gags, bad puns and musical numbers galore, and a surprising amount of heart as well. Every second is filled with love for the Muppets and the Haunted Mansion.

Please note that I’m going to be spoiling the entire special, so drop what you’re doing and go watch it first. You will not regret it. This special is truly something worth experiencing before I color it with my own commentary, no matter how glowing it may be. While it’s been on Disney Plus for a year now, it’s making its cable debut this weekend for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet (or LAST weekend as of the time this is posted, thank you new job and stomach flu). Also, I’m aware that some of my readers have never been to a Disney park or ridden the Haunted Mansion before, so I’ll do my best to put some of the scenes, references and in-jokes in their proper context.

It’s Halloween and the Muppets are throwing a party together – all except The Great Gonzo, who’s doing a very special fear challenge. He’s going to spend the night in the haunted mansion that his magician idol, The Great Macguffin, mysteriously disappeared in one-hundred years ago.

Accompanying Gonzo is Pepe the King Prawn, who thinks they’re off to a celebrity mansion party. Any Muppet fan worth their salt will point out that it’s Rizzo the Rat, not Pepe, who’s usually by Gonzo’s side on these outings. The change in casting most likely has to do with Steve Whitmire, Kermit and Rizzo’s puppeteer, parting ways with Disney for reasons that are way too complicated to get into. Thankfully, the special does a great job weaving Pepe into the story. I understand he’s an acquired taste, something which Gonzo himself acknowledges, but I’ve always liked him. His egocentricity and cynical asides make him a great foil for Gonzo’s enthusiasm. I tried to imagine Rizzo in his place but ultimately couldn’t. That’s how well the writers did with him here.

Their chauffeur, Yvette-Nicole Brown, mentions that nobody has returned from visiting the mansion before, and warily drops them off at their destination.

I like the look of this Haunted Mansion. It’s not the Mansion from Disneyland, Walt Disney World, or the international Disney parks, but a creative amalgamation of all of them.

In the cemetery surrounding the house, Pepe and Gonzo meet the nervous caretaker, played by Darren Criss. The caretaker is an animatronic prominently featured on the ride and it’s nice to have him realized on screen by a talented performer (especially after the character was cut from the 2003 movie). Though it is a bit odd seeing the character for years as a Don Knotts clone…

…and instead of that we get Harry Freaking Potter.

The caretaker leads a couple of ghosts in the special’s first song “Rest in Peace”, warning Pepe and Gonzo to not disturb the spirits’ happy haunting ground. The lyrics are largely made up of the clever rhyming tombstones that litter the Haunted Mansion’s lawn, culminating in a verse of the ride’s theme tune “Grim Grinning Ghosts”. It’s also during this number that we get the bulk of the celebrity cameos, including Alfonso Ribiero, Pat Sajack, Sasheer Zamata, Ed Asner in his final filmed role, and of course, honorary human Muppet Danny Trejo.

The Ghost Host (Will Forte) meets Gonzo and Pepe at the door and formally presents the challenge: to survive the night in the mansion and face all their fears within, or be trapped there forever.

We also get the introduction to one of the better running jokes, a skeleton and a mummy popping in with a dramatic “DUN DUN DUN!!!” with increasingly worse timing.

Nice to see Dead Tom’s still getting work after Tim Curry shot him.

The Ghost Host informs his guests that the spirits’ response to their “sympathetic vibrations” will result in the mansion’s 999 haunts appearing familiar to them. It’s a clever way to account for the Muppets showing up as the ghosts and decor.

He leads them further into the mansion, beginning with the infamous stretching portrait room. Several innocent-looking paintings elongate with the ceiling (or the floor, if you’re in California) to reveal their subjects in grimly humorous situations.

It’s then Gonzo notices this chamber has no windows and no doors, which presents another chilling challenge: to find a way out! The terror of the moment is undercut, however, when Gonzo questions if the Ghost Host means a way out of the room or the mansion. I love how annoyed Forte is, like he’s never had to deal with anyone going into the semantics of what’s supposed to be a horrifying situation. He’s just great overall, naturally stepping into the role with plenty of mystique and showmanship.

For those of you who don’t know how this scene plays out in the ride, the bit about finding an exit is immediately followed by the Ghost Host (the voice of Paul Frees) saying “Of course, there’s always my way”. Then the room goes to black as lightning reveals the corpse of Jeffrey Epstein hanging from the rafters, implying the only way to escape is through death. Showing actual death isn’t feasible here (this isn’t Muppet Treasure Island, sadly), but they keep the bloodcurdling shriek as the lights go out by giving it to a random goat. The goat’s another running gag that’s used sparingly enough to keep it fresh, which I’m thankful for.

Gonzo finds a trick door in the wall that leads down a corridor of eerie changing portraits and busts that watch their every move. I’m also convinced that some of the frights he and Pepe encounter are references to changes the attraction’s undergone over the years. The man-eating plant resembles the carnivorous wreath from the Mansion’s annual Nightmare Before Christmas-themed overlay. And the suit of armor that attacks Pepe? Though there is a moving knight animatronic in one of the hallways, I swear that this one’s a nod to the infamous short-lived addition of an actor in a knight costume who would pop out and scare guests.

Something I noticed on repeated viewings (which others who may have ridden the Haunted Mansion before might have caught too) is that Gonzo and Pepe traverse much of the mansion’s show scenes in the same order you do in the ride. If you’re familiar with any of the parks’ mansions, you could easily guess what they’ll encounter in the next scene. If you’ve only watched Muppets Haunted Mansion and never went on the attraction, now you what to expect. Just, you know, without the Muppets flying around causing chaos. Though that would make for a fun retheme I wouldn’t object to.

Pepe, who’s way more interested in mingling with live celebrities than becoming a dead one, finds a “famous peoples room” where John Stamos is hanging out. John tells Pepe to come closer and he’ll tell him a secret – and then reveals his true form.

The female Disneyland cast members can attest to that.

Pepe is all for calling it quits, but the hallway keeps sending him back where he started running. They enter a chamber where a seance is being held by a head in a floating crystal ball, the mysterious medium “Madame Pigota”. Like “Fozziwig” in Muppets Christmas Carol, you can’t convince me this special wasn’t created just to make that joke.

My favorite part of this scene, though? The appearance of Pigota’s maid “Kimmy”, better known as Disney Imagineer and Legend Kim Irvine. She’s the daughter of the Disney Imagineer whom Madame Leota is named after, Leota Toombs. She’s even wearing the same costume as the female Mansion cast members. I love it when we gets winks to Disney history such as this.

After Pigota points Gonzo and Pepe to the “exat” (rhyming spells are not one of Piggy’s strong suits), they’re swept on to a dining cart pushed by Sweetums into the ballroom where a singing wake is in progress. We get the ballroom dancers re-enacting the “At the Dance” dad joke sequence from The Muppet Show, Rowlf cracking one-liners at the organ, Statler and Waldorf heckling from their doom buggy in place of their usual balcony…this really is Disney and the Muppets putting their peanut butter in my chocolate and I am here it.

The Ghost Host and the assembled spirits entertain their living guests while simultaneously tempting them into joining their eternal party with “Life Hereafter”. It may not be my favorite song, but without it we never would have had this special. When lockdown started and it seemed likely that Muppets Haunted Mansion would be cancelled, Thatcher wrote a parody of “Be Our Guest” titled “Be Our Ghost” as a way to imagine what could have been. He showed it to one of his producer friends, which made them all the more determined to see the project completed. It’s a little distracting hearing lyrics clearly homaging a familiar song set to an unfamiliar tune, but I can’t deny how catchy it is. I also have to give props to Matt Vogler, Kermit’s replacement puppeteer. The vocal difference between him and Whitmire’s Kermit is still noticeable, but he does fine when it comes to singing as everyone’s favorite felt amphibian.

Gonzo responds to this musical memento mori not with shivers or a crushing existential dread but with applause. He’s already accepted that the supernatural surrounding him is real because all this strangeness is right up his alley. The Ghost Host is impressed with Gonzo’s bravery thus far, though reminds him everyone has a fear of something. He presents his final challenge: of all the guests who have taken up residence within the mansion, there is only one room no one has dared to enter, Room 999. He cryptically hints that the key is for Gonzo to face his fears, and vanishes.

Meanwhile Pepe is distracted by the appearance of an alluring wraith – Constance the Black Widow Bride, played by Taraji P. Henson. Another human highlight, she revels in the fun kind of villainous camp that reminds me of classic Disney baddies like Ursula. The two flirt with each other and Constance takes Pepe up to her space in the attic. As she continues to put the moves on him, the ghosts of her former husbands (and victims) show up to commentate, played by Beauregard, Lew Zealand, Walter, a penguin, and…JOHNNY FIAMA AND SAL??!!

Woah, I haven’t seen these guys since Muppets Tonight! In fact, a couple of other Muppets who haven’t been seen since that show make appearances throughout the special. They even got Brian Henson to return to play Sal. I don’t know how this feature keeps finding ways for me to like it more and yet here we are.

Constance and Pepe perform “The Tie The Knot Tango” where he falls even deeper under her spell and agrees to marry her.

And hey, Uncle Deadly shows up to officiate, that’s cool.

Gonzo follows the Ghost Host’s candelabra to Room 999 – which locks and flips to 666 after he enters.

So the special has been all lighthearted spooks and games up til now. Once Gonzo is alone, it takes an unexpectedly dark and poignant turn.

Gonzo finds nothing but a mirror hanging in an empty black void. His reflection ominously echoes the Ghost Host’s warning and tells him that everyone in the mansion is trapped by their fears. Gonzo proudly recounts his fearless exploits (some of which uses footage from Muppets Tonight, which, in addition to Johnny Fiama and Sal’s surprise appearance, gives me hope that they’re working on getting that on Disney Plus next). But the reflection points out no one is around for him to tell about his daring-do.

Gonzo watches everyone having fun at Kermit’s party, but they can’t see or hear him through the mirror. Then he realizes his reflection has been aging the whole time, which means he’s getting older by the second. Ancient Gonzo is one of the freakiest Muppets ever created in the studio’s history – and that’s saying something.

Marathoning The Muppet Show as many times as I’ve had over the past year, I’ve noticed an evolution in Gonzo’s character: he starts out insecure and depressed, spurred on by the fact that nobody gets his “artsy” acts like eating a rubber tire to “Flight of the Bumblebee”. By the show’s midpoint, he’s grown into the program’s resident daredevil. It’s a role he wholeheartedly embraces because he has a talent for it and the audience eats it up. This scene reconciles the two Gonzos by highlighting the driving force behind them: the desire to be appreciated and loved, and the fear that nobody will care about him if he’s not doing what he’s great at. As a creator and entertainer, it struck a deep chord.

There’s also a tragic bit of meta commentary going on as well. Dave Goelz is the last of the original Muppeteers still working; Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Jerry Nelson, Steve Whitmire and Frank Oz have either moved on or passed on. So watching Gonzo, who’s all but standing in for the seventy-five year-old Goelz, grow closer to death isolated from everyone he cares about is particularly rough.

Kermit toasts to his absentee pal, reaffirming that in his eyes Gonzo will always be great no matter what. This leads Gonzo to realize that what he’s most afraid is never seeing his friends again. Having faced his fear at last, the door unlocks and he returns to normal. The Ghost Host tells Gonzo he’s free to go before sunrise, but Pepe’s about to be loved to death.

Though the first light of dawn is approaching, Gonzo refuses to leave without his friend. The Ghost Host gives him the candelabra to light his way to Pepe.

Gonzo chases it as the hallways warp and throw the mansion inhabitants at him like the climax of Alice in Wonderland. He makes an arduous climb up a spiraling staircase but can’t reach the latch and falls into the jaws of a giant creature hidden in the shadows below him.

“I am the one hiding under your stairs…”

The monster’s obviously CGI, but realism was never the intention here. It’s purely stylistic, a genuine mix of Muppet charm and creepiness. Gonzo makes the monster sneeze and rockets up to his destination.

One minor nitpick: I hoped his nose was going to hook onto the latch and drop Constance through the attic door. Funny as that would have been, his wedding crash is still awesome.

Gonzo charges forth shouting “I’ve faced my fears, and homicidal brides are not one of them!” He tangles up Constance in her veil and leaps with Pepe out the window. The caretaker, who was in the midst of preparing their tombstones, is startled to see them both alive.

Pepe and Gonzo cheese it through the graveyard, ignoring the ghosts’ pleas to stay. They are just about to cross through the gate when the Ghost Host stops them. No, it’s not because they were too late, but so he can congratulate Gonzo on facing his fears, something he never could.

The Ghost Host reveals he was The Great Macguffin all along. Though he’s resigned to spending his afterlife in the Haunted Mansion, he has no qualms about it and tells Gonzo he’s proud of him.

Yvette returns with the limo, and she couldn’t be happier to learn her clients have survived for once. Having had enough scares for one lifetime, Gonzo and Pepe head on over to Kermit’s for a post-Halloween breakfast. But there was one little matter their Host forgot to mention…

Beware of hitchhiking ghosts!

The Muppet fan base has been split on the directions Disney’s taken the franchise has taken ever since it bought them. The reaction to Muppets Haunted Mansion, however, is universal: this is without a doubt the best thing Disney’s done with the Muppets so far. It’s safe to say the fans have much more faith in the company regarding future projects (the upcoming Electric Mayhem series? You better believe I’ll be watching it).

Much of the special was shot on green screens due to the pandemic, but they did such an excellent job recreating the ride’s interior that I genuinely believed they filmed within the attraction itself. Even if you’re not familiar with the Haunted Mansion ride, it’s a perfectly fun setting that captures all the chills and thrills that makes it a park icon. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need to get hyped for the upcoming Haunted Mansion film with Jared Creepo Leto. We Mansion fans already got the movie we’ve been waiting for, and this is it.

All in all, this is one Muppet outing that I’d think Jim Henson would be proud of. The humor is self-aware yet sincere; if you’re disappointed by the lack of jokes in this review, it’s because it came up with all the good ones first. The balance between that, the scares, and the heart is a rare ten out of ten. And judging by the overall enthusiasm and the cast joining the Muppets in singing “Dancing in the Moonlight” over the credits, you can tell everyone was having so much fun making this. Muppets Haunted Mansion is a love letter to the Muppets and one of the greatest theme park rides in existence, and it’s one of my favorite Halloween specials to come out in recent memory. If you’re looking for something fun to add to your spooky lineup, by all means watch it. Happy Halloween!

Thank you for reading! Faerie Tale Theatre reviews are posted on the 6th of each month. Special thanks to my generous patrons Amelia Jones, Sam Flemming and Robert Barnette. Anyone who joins the Patreon party can get such fun perks as sneak peeks of reviews, extra votes, movie requests and more!

Screencaps courtesy of animationscreencaps.com