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Muppets Haunted Mansion is both an exercise in corporate synergy and a delightful treat

Disney’s+ thoroughly Muppetational new Halloween special is stuffed full of celebrity cameos and feels nostalgic in the right way, writes Clarisse Loughrey.

Love them. Hate them. Fear them—but never underestimate the spending power of the Disney adult. The Mickey Mouse ears-wearing, churro-chomping syndicate of park fanatics have had all their whims catered to by Disney+’s new holiday special, Muppets Haunted Mansion. Based on the popular Disneyland ride, first opened in 1969 and since exported around the globe, this one-hour, bite-sized treat will resist any comparison to the Eddie Murphy-starring The Haunted Mansion adaptation from 2003.

That film was one of several attempts by Disney to replicate the blockbuster success of Pirates of the Caribbean. This is just some pleasant silliness—a parade of celebrity cameos justifying a series of increasingly niche references.

Who except the most dedicated of Disney fans will recognise that the maid cleaning the crystal ball of one Madame Pigota (Miss Piggy, a reference to the ride’s resident medium Madame Leota) is actually Kim Irvine—the Disney Imagineeer whose mother, Leota Toombs, was the original face and voice of the character? And who else would find any enjoyment in Muppets Haunted Mansion recreating, almost word for word, the message that plays over the speakers when the ride has stalled or broken down?

It’s catered to such a specific niche that it’s hard to imagine how anyone outside of said niche would find much appeal in it—or even have a clue as to what’s going on. But for those who know every word that comes after the phrase “when hinges creak in doorless chambers”, Muppets Haunted Mansion is a sure winner.

Of course, it’s largely an exercise in corporate synergy—an ad for a place where you can visit both The Haunted Mansion and a Muppets-hosted 3D show. But there’s a larger purpose being served here. Muppets Haunted Mansion is a carefully curated testing ground for a company that doesn’t quite know what to do with a brand like The Muppets, who haven’t enjoyed a surefire hit since the 2011 film.

The plot is a straightforward one: Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) arrive at the titular, spooky abode after an invitation to spend the night, on the 100th anniversary of the disappearance of Gonzo’s hero—a magician named the Great MacGuffin. He’s filled with wide-eyed wonder; Pepe wants to know where all the “famous peoples” at the “big mansion’s party” are at.

Gonzo and Pepe, you say? Isn’t the dream team meant to be Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat, the MVPs of Muppet Treasure Island and The Muppet Christmas Carol (“light the lamp, not the rat! Light the lamp, not the rat!”)? Not anymore, sadly. The Muppets have gone through several radical changes in the aftermath of puppet performer Steve Whitmire’s dismissal in 2017, his relationship with The Jim Henson Company having already soured three decades before. Not only had Whitmire served as the voice of Kermit since Henson’s death in 1990 (he’s since been replaced with Matt Vogel), but had wholesale created the character of Rizzo, who may now be doomed never to return again.

Times are tough for our darling Muppets, if the outraged comments about “fake Kermit” underneath every video posted to social media are any indication. Last year’s improv series received fairly lukewarm reviews and a more substantial reboot, titled Muppets Live Another Day, was cancelled before even a single frame was shot. But Muppets Haunted Mansion feels nostalgic in the right ways.

Director Kirk R Thatcher, who co-wrote the script with Barretta and Kelly Younger, has delivered the ideal balance of dad jokes, puns and visual gags. Barretta’s preening and self-obsessed Pepe might bring a different energy to Rizzo, but he’s still a welcome foil. There are, of course, plenty of celebrity cameos—including Will Arnett, Darren Criss, Taraji P. Henson, John Stamos, Danny Trejo, Chrissy Metz, Alfonso Ribeiro and the late Ed Asner—that are at their most joyous when joining in on the special’s triple serving of musical numbers. If this is any indication of the future, the Muppets are climbing their way back to the top.