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: