Are the Muppets inherently scary?
Well, no, of course not, they are the very definition of quirky, sweet, charming and Dad Joke silly, the warm and fuzzy hug we need when things do get a little frightening.
So, what then, you might ask, are they doing in a Halloween special such as Muppets Haunted Mansion?
Quite a lot in fact and much of it is exactly what you’d expect of Jim Henson’s marvellously loopy creations who see the world, happily for audiences, through a completely different perspective to the rest of us, and approach it accordingly.
That applies to being trapped in a haunted mansion overnight, where their “Ghost Host”, played by a very dapper Will Arnett, tells invitees The Great Gonzo (Dave Goelz) and Pepé the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) that the only way they will be escaping their temporary home is if they are still alive in the morning.
The rest of us might be considerably scared at that point, especially with the words of the limo driver, played by Yvette Nicole Brown, ringing in our ears who tells the eager partygoers – they’ve been told they are going to a celebrity-studded party to celebrate the 100th birthday of famed magician, The Great MacGuffin (a nice bit of funny meta naming) – that she’s never picked up anyone the next morning.
Unnerved much? Not Gonzo, who boldly declares on multiple occasions that he isn’t afraid of anything, and Pepé who is ready to party hard with the likes of Ryan Gosling and Beyoncé.
So convinced are our idiosyncratically oblivious twosome that they are there for the celebration of their lives that they don’t really take on board the Ghost Host’s warnings that they if they die in the mansion during the night, that they are there for forever.
What follows is a riotously funny, pun-filled (naturally) homage to the ghoulish delights of Halloween which, if Gonzo and Pepé don’t wise up, might just be the longest party they have ever attended.
A party by the way that they chose to attend over going to the Muppets’ annual shindig where Fozzie Bear is dressed as a banana and Kermit and Miss Piggy are dressed, rather alarmingly but funnily, as each other.
Everyone is missing Gonzo and Pepé but they video chat them as the wend their way to the select event at the mansion, wishing them all the best for a great night.
What follows, of course, is not much a great night, with not a celebrity to be seen and lots and lots of ghosts, all of them cameos of your favourite Muppets with everyone from Rowlf the Dog to Kermit to the Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem and Statler and Waldorf making appearances as deathly apparitions, albeit ones with wickedly silly quips and oneliners.
While Gonzo and Pepé may be increasingly have a nightmarish time of it, we, the audience watched from a nice, safe distance on Disney+, are in fact having the night of our lives.
That’s mainly because Muppets Haunted Mansion is classic Muppets, having a deliriously good time bringing all our favourite characters to life, rather ironically given the storyline, in a way that is fresh and up to the minute (smart phones are de rigeur for every Muppet now) while recalling the very best of a group who remains as loved now as they ever were.
With a lineage now a number of decades long, there’s plenty of past material to draw from such as The Muppet Show (1976-1981) which forms the centrepiece of a ghostly dinner party where a very dead Fozzie the Bear, all glowing green and jokes are bad as ever, tries to entertain a very demanding audience, all of whom have got a lot of time to fill in, caught as they are in the mansion for eternity.
If anything that makes their appetite for bad jokes less than it was back in the show’s heyday, and much fun is had as Fozzie quips about dying on stage and the audience does their best to convinced an increasingly rattled Gonzo and Pepé to stick around for many years of Fozzie’s dubious humour.
The two guests for the night aren’t convinced that that’s the best option, and as the night wears on, each must face their own great challenge, Gonzo coming face-to-face with his greatest fears and Pepé under the spell of perennial black widow Constance Hatchaway (Taraji P. Henson) who wants to add him to her frighteningly long list of very dead ex-husbands (amongst a great many plays on words, she assures him that will kill him with kindness and smother him with love; never have sweet nothings sounded so ominous).
Even though Muppets Haunted Mansion is based, like many things Disney has done in recent years for better or worse, on a much-loved ride at Disneyland – if you’ve ridden it, you will appreciate the attention to detail in incorporating as much of the ride’s backstory and lore as possible – it feels miraculously like a whole lot of fresh, original fun where fears are faced, puns and jokes are more numerous that ghosts, quirky silliness is very much in evidence (watching the Ghost Host’s two sidekicks stuff up again and again is cute and funny) and Gonzo and Pepé come to grips with what matters to them in life and doing their hilariously meaningful and occasionally quite touching best not to have it follow them into death.
Muppets Haunted Mansion is now streaming on Disney+