I did watch Muppets Haunted Mansion when it premiered last year. It would have made more sense to watch it before Halloween so that I would have had time to review it. But I wanted to watch it on Halloween because I didn’t have anything better to do, so I did, and by the time I was inclined to write a review of it, it felt more like Christmas. So now that it’s the Halloween season again, I’m going to review it now.
On the whole, I liked it. I didn’t love it, but I liked it. To me, it was the first production since Muppets Most Wanted in 2014 that really felt like the Muppets. Admittedly, that’s not saying much, but it was gratifying nonetheless. I think it effectively accomplished what it set out to do, which was to be spooky, silly, and maybe even a little heartfelt.
I give a lot of credit for that to Bill Barretta, who was an executive producer and a writer. It seems that Bill has taken on the mantle of the guardian of Muppet integrity from Steve, and this special proved him to be a worthy successor.
I have never been to any of the Disney Parks and don’t intend to ever visit any of them. Even if I did go there, I probably wouldn’t go on the Haunted Mansion ride because I’m not really into scary stuff. So there were a lot of jokes that probably went right over my head because they were references to the ride and I didn’t know enough to recognize them. There was only one of these that felt obtrusive: The opening song, “Rest in Peace,” sung by Darren Criss and featuring a lot of celebrity cameos and zero Muppets unless you count reaction shots of Gonzo and Pepe. It did nothing to advance the plot and, from my point of view, was completely superfluous. But it was probably more entertaining to people who like the ride.
I can’t help but notice that the two main Muppet characters in this special were two of the few characters who still have their original performers. I kind of doubt that the producers sat down and said, “Now, let’s specifically pick characters who still have their original performers to star in this special.” Nevertheless, the fact that it worked out that way is to the benefit of the production.
Even if there hadn’t been behind-the-scenes upheaval, I think Gonzo and Pepe were the perfect characters to star in this special. Gonzo is a multi-faceted character, and this special strikes the perfect balance between the fearless daredevil who loves creepy stuff and the one-of-a-kind misfit who wants to be loved and accepted. This special makes the case that those two sides have more to do with one another than people might realize — and I, for one, am here for it.
So … there was a lot of complaining in the fandom at the time, and maybe there still is, about Pepé being a kind of replacement goldfish for Rizzo in this special because Disney won’t allow Steve to play Rizzo. And look … I kind of get it: There’s Gonzo-and-Rizzo things, and there’s Rizzo-and-Pepé things, and there are Gonzo-Rizzo-and-Pepé things, but this may well be the first Gonzo-and-Pepé thing (though I doubt it will be the last). Even to me, it kind of seems like Gonzo and Pepé ended up hanging out together because they were both friends with Rizzo, but it never seemed much like they were friends with each other. So having them hang out together now is a little weird. But the whole Schism and its aftermath is weird, and if the fans didn’t want it to be weird, they could have spoken up when they had the chance, but they didn’t. Now they just have to deal with it being weird; I have no sympathy or patience with their whining about it.
Anyway, there are factions in the fandom who miss Rizzo but they don’t want Steve, and those people are like, “Just recast Rizzo already!” and that attitude is so disrespectful to Steve that I just can’t even right now because I’m afraid I’m going to go off on some totally unrelated tangent.
My point is this: Even if there had been no Schism, even if Steve was still performing with the Muppets, I still think that Pepé is the right character — dare I say, the ONLY Muppet character — for the subplot of getting seduced and almost married to and subsequently fricasseed by the Bride (who is a ride character and I don’t know anything about her except what I learned from this special). Yes, I know, the Gonzo-Rizzo pairing for 30 years since Muppet Christmas Carol, blah blah blah … but I honestly can’t imagine Rizzo in a romance plot. Whereas Pepé is all about two things, romance and money, so it makes sense for his character in a way that it doesn’t for Rizzo.
And also, Rizzo is kind of a coward, so even if there was no Schism, I don’t think it would make sense for him to go spend the night in a spooky haunted mansion at all when, at the same time, there is a party going on with lots of food. So sorry, disingenuous Muppet fans, but I’m not buying what you’re selling about how Rizzo should have been in this instead of Pepé and the only reason it shook out that way was because of the Schism. And by the way, the Gonzo-Rizzo pairing works because of the chemistry between Dave and Steve, and that’s not something that you can just magically re-create by plugging someone who does a passably good Rizzo impression in there.
(I hope they never recast Rizzo, but if they ever do, I’m looking forward to the comments by the disgruntled fans saying, “Gonzo and Rizzo just aren’t as funny as they used to be.” Gee, I WONDER WHY!!!)
My favorite part of this special was the song “Tie the Knot Tango,” a duet sung by Pepé and the Bride. The song itself is so good; I looked it up on YouTube after watching the special and took advantage of any opportunity I could find to listen to it again for days thereafter. And I realized as I enjoyed it, I think this is the first real musical number that Pepé has ever had, apart from a stray line or two in larger group numbers. I think that’s part of what’s kept him has a second-tier Muppet character for 25 years, that and the Muppet Fan Conglomerate’s irrational hatred of him. And honestly, it never occurred to me that Pepé could have a whole musical number of his own, but when it happened, it was like, “I never knew that this was something that I needed!” And it made me wonder, why is this Pepé’s first musical number? Why has it taken everyone so long to realize that this should be a thing?
Speaking of the Bride, she’s played by Taraji P. Henson, who’s wonderful and perfect. I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that she happens to have the same last name as the creator of the Muppets, but maybe I’m wrong and it’s a mark that she was born to play this role, but in either case, she embodies it so delightfully.
Also delightful is the other main human character in this special, played by Will Arnett. Now, I don’t know if Will Arnett made the choice to act his character in an understated manner to complement Muppet craziness or if someone directed him to do it that way, but in either case, it’s very effective.
Kermit and Piggy aren’t in this special very much, which I think is all to its benefit. I’m tired of all the drama surrounding them, from both the Watsonian and Doylist points of view, so this special made for a refreshing change.
So I liked the special itself, but I didn’t like the way Disney handled it. Disney has put all its eggs in the streaming basket so they premiered the special exclusively on the Disney+ platform. But if they were smart, they would have aired it on network TV and ran commercials at the breaks saying, “If you liked that special, subscribe to Disney+ for more Muppet content!” Streaming it exclusively was penny-wise and pound-foolish; therefore, par for the course for Disney.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t mind seeing the special again, but it’s not worth resubscribing to Disney+ for.
As for the larger issues, I approve of Bill Barretta becoming the new Guardian of Muppet Integrity, but at the same time, his taking on that role makes me nervous for him. From this point on, if the Muppets underperform and the execs become displeased, I’m afraid that he’ll be the one with the target on his back, and he’ll be the one they scapegoat.
And if that happens, it may be enough to make the fan conglomerate realize that the Schism wasn’t quite on the up-and-up, but by then it will be too late to stop the overlords and protect the Muppets from them.
And that’s legitimately scary.
If you’re interested in the opposite perspective on the special, from someone who knows the Haunted Mansion ride but is less familiar with the Muppets, check out Alexa Chipman’s review of Muppets Haunted Mansion:
17 thoughts on “My Tragically Delayed Review of Muppets Haunted Mansion”
Oh, jeez, I never even thought of Bill Barretta becoming Disney’s scapegoat if the Muppets don’t do well. I’d been thinking that Dave Goelz would be next to get the Steve Whitmire treatment (probably Disney deciding that he’s “gotten too old” to do Gonzo and firing him, then launching a smear campaign against him so they don’t look bad). But I could totally see them going after Bill… do you think Brian would speak up in Bill’s defense since they’re such good friends or side with Disney because they’re the ones with money they can bribe him with?
Speaking of Brian, I’m kind of surprised you didn’t bring up his participation in the special. While it was neat to see Johnny and Sal again, I can’t help but find it suspicious that Brian is all of a sudden working with the Muppets again after the Schism. I would’ve preferred Sal being recast to David Rudman or something than having Brian work with the Muppets again.
If he sticks around, hopefully they don’t let him onto the writing/directing crew. I don’t want to see Scooter cage-dancing again.
🤣 I purposely didn’t bring up Brian’s involvement because I made the mistake of bringing it up on the Tough Pigs forum (back when I was still posting on it) and now they all think I’m some kind of crazy conspiracy theorist, so it’s kind of a sore subject.
I don’t think Brian’s back performing with the Muppets for good; I think it was probably just a one-off thing, a favor for Bill or something. I think he’s a little too busy running the company to go back to performing on a regular basis. But it is “funny,” for lack of a better word, that there are people in the world who have said with all sincerity that they trust Brian’s version of events because he didn’t have anything to gain from siding with Disney, and besides this little cameo, he’s had a streaming series on Disney+ and a deal for a Jim Henson biopic. But he’s not benefitting from Disney in any way; oh no! 🙄
Anyway, I agree with you about Sal’s cameo. I love Sal, but I don’t like Brian, so I was conflicted about it.
As to whether Brian would side with Bill in a conflict with Disney … I don’t know. That’s a really good question. My guess — and it is just a guess — is that he would probably try to stay neutral in the conflict in the interest of trying to maintain good relations with both sides. But given the priority he’s given the relationship with Disney … I don’t know.
In 2018, Brian praised Steve’s performance of Kermit in Muppet Treasure Island, in 2020, he said Steve was a logical choice to take over Kermit, because he liked imitating voices, and he praised Steve’s performance of the Christmas Scat in Muppet Christmas Carol, and at the D23 Expo this year, he praised Steve’s performance of Rizzo in Muppet Christmas Carol. I hope you can be less harsh toward Brian knowing these things.
That just goes to show how inconsistent he is. The criticisms will continue unless Brian actually apologizes to Steve for his role in the Schism, especially for the aspersions he cast on Steve’s character at the time, and to the fans for misleading them. Even in that extremely unlikely event, I may continue to criticize him if he keeps up his relationship with Disney.
Furthermore, although I think I recognize your name from Discord and from Steve’s Instagram, I can’t just take your word that Brian actually said any of those things. I need some hard evidence in the form of audio, video, or a published article of journalism.
But I want you to understand that I do not derive any pleasure from criticizing Brian. I’m actually a huge fan of his work. I was one of the few people to go on record saying that Happytime Murders should get a fair shot when the Muppet fandom was pissing all over it without having actually seen it. And I have some sympathy for him having to take over running the company at a very young age while mourning his father, and his frustration with having administration take up so much of his time when he’s more interested in the creative side of things.
I don’t waste my criticisms on people whom I don’t believe can change because I know that that’s a lost cause. So if I criticize Brian and his sisters, it’s only because I still have faith that they can do better.
Thank you for commenting, though. Sincerely. I get very little constructive criticism on this blog, and I appreciate it. Most of the comments are either from people who agree with me or people who just launch mindless verbal attacks. I appreciate comments that actually have some thought behind them, even if I disagree with them.
Anthony, I have a question that I would like to ask you, but I’m afraid that it’s going to sound defensive and I don’t mean it to at all. So here goes: What have I said about Brian that you consider to be harsh? Is it something specific, or is it just my general tone?
From my perspective, I think I’ve been very generous in giving him the benefit of the doubt to the extent that it’s reasonable to do so and trying to understand the motives behind the hurtful things he’s done without making excuses for them or denying that they’ve been hurtful. Given the horrible things he said about Steve in 2017, which he has never apologized for or retracted, I think I’ve shown a lot of restraint, possibly more than he deserves. But of course, it’s difficult to critique myself objectively.
Just the fact that you said you don’t like Brian came across as harsh to me. Here are the instances I mentioned of Brian complementing Steve: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3sewGQZLIE (skip to 3:24:41), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8wVlJfW6PQ (skip to 11:22), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vB8N1qcBf2Q, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Vp-PxWVrd0
Yeah, I can see that. There are probably better ways that I could have put that. I have never met Brian, so I don’t know whether I would like or dislike him if I ever did. It would probably be more accurate, and possibly less harsh, to say that I am disappointed in his behavior in this matter.
Thank you for the links. I will look at them, but I don’t expect that they will change my point of view. His saying nice things about Steve now doesn’t erase the hurtful, damaging things that he said about him before.
Hey Anthony, thank you again for providing these clips of Brian. I watched them all and I wanted to share some impressions that I have of them.
What these videos communicate to me is that Brian respects the work Steve did with the Muppets, though his personal feelings about Steve may be more negative. I don’t necessarily fault him for that because I know that my feelings about Brian are complicated, so I can understand that his feelings about Steve may be complicated as well. That doesn’t excuse his publicly disrespecting Steve, but it at least helps me understand his point of view.
In the George Lucas Talk Show interview in which Brian says that Steve is good at “voice impersonation,” he may very well have meant that as a compliment, but I’m not sure that Steve would take it that way based on the way that he has made a distinction in the past between an impersonation and an authentic character. Granted, it could be that Steve and Brian use different words to express the same thing.
If anything, that just adds more credence to the theory that Brian was paid off by Disney to slander Steve back in 2020.
Scooter cage dancing was not Brian’s idea.
You know, people complain a lot about the cage dancing scene, and I agree that it’s a distressing visual, but what people don’t seem to grasp is that that’s the whole point! It’s an alternate reality in which all the Muppets are miserable because Kermit was never born, and the cage dancing is a really effective illustration of that. No one’s suggesting that Muppets cage dancing is a good thing or something that should be part of their regular schtick. Probably one of the most misunderstood and unfairly maligned moments in all the Muppet oeuvre.
I get that it’s SUPPOSED to be disturbing, but it’s still really disturbing and incredibly inappropriate for a Muppet movie.
They could’ve had Scooter be a hobo selling bootleg DVDs to survive or something like that and it would’ve gotten the point across just as well.
I don’t disagree.
If Brian’s going to blame Steve for the way Kermit’s character is written (what was his complain again? That Steve’s Kermit was too “nice”?), then I’m going to blame him for Scooter cage-dancing.
Besides, Brian LOVES having puppets partake in “edgy” humor like that (see also “The Happytime Murders”, “Puppet Up!”, what have you). Even if it wasn’t his idea, I don’t believe for a second that he wasn’t on board with it.
Ultimately, I just think it’s only as big a deal as people make of it. For me, I just feel that there are better and more constructive ways that I can channel my energy. But that’s just me.
To me it felt Muppety in a good way — exactly like Muppets Tonight Halloween special i could have missed in the 90s (sans Clifford). No wonder, since Mr. Kirk R. Thatcher was largely responsible for both.
I must say, though, that while i totally agree with you that Pepe was perfect for the episode as it is, I would so very much prefer seeing Gonzo and Rizzo — scenario to be reworked to fit the couple — with the original performers of course!
As i already said elsewhere, both Pepe and Gonzo are great as usual, getting along quite well, each being funny and touching in their own way. It’s just that it feels that with Gonzo and Pepe each one has his own fun lines. Gonzo and Rizzo would bounce off each other instead, striking sparks of laughter out of thin air. It was good fun, but it could have been hilarious!
P.S. It looks like the next person to leave Muppet train was Jim Lewis who (was?) officially retired last month. Myself, i seriously consider The Muppets Present Great Moments in American History scripted by Jim to be one of the performances truest to the original in spirit, so while wishing Jim the best i cannot help feeling sad.
P.P.S. As for guest stars and appearances, suffice to say that Ms. Taraji has by far the most of my sympathies out of all the living celebrities with the same last name. =)
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I was sad to hear of Jim Lewis’ retirement, too. But I wasn’t really surprised, knowing that he had opted out of involvement with the 2015 series (more’s the pity). Personally, I have no suspicions that it was anything other than voluntary on his part. I mean, the very fact that Tough Pigs sought out an interview with him when they had no interest in speaking with Steve communicates to me that this is a very different situation.