Never have I thought that a Muppet movie, of all things, would be my worst reviewed movie of the year. Now I understand that the Muppets has never been about making genuine art, they’ll always keep their silly wordplay and celebrity cameos, which really stopped being funny after Jim Henson’s death. Now the presence of the Muppets in media are just all about continuing to make money off a nostalgic brand that already passed its heyday decades ago. Muppets Haunted Mansion could have at least been really cute and a step up in their quality of humor, but alas, it was instead a step backward.
Unlike traditional Muppet fashion, Kermit the Frog is not taking center stage here, in fact, he barely has much screentime- same goes to Miss Piggy. Rather, the Great Gonzo assumes the lead role, along with Pepé the King Prawn, who together are as charmless as ever. Even the other usually charming characters feel forced and random in the way they’re utilized, be it Fozzie the Bear playing the Haunted Mansion’s legendary Hatbox Ghost, Miss Piggy playing Madame Leota, or Budson Honeydew and Beaker playing the busts that watch you as you walk by. Oh, and Statler and Waldorf are in a Doom Buggy (the official name of the ride vehicles)… I’m sorry, what parts of the ride are they trying to parody? The story or the entire ride experience? I don’t think this movie really made up its mind on that. All the creative decisions in fact feel like they were generated by an internet randomizer, such as a five-second “follow the bouncing skull” graphic in one of the musical numbers, or a reference to the twins from The Shining, crammed in like everything that has ever parodied horror has done to that Kubrick classic.
If you were only watching this Disney+ special because you love the ride, you’ll most likely be disappointed. The first easter egg from the iconic attraction is the caretaker and his dog, which is backwards, since he doesn’t appear in the ride until closer to the end, and once the king prawn and bird-alien-thing enter the mansion doors, everything is linear to the events of the ride for the most part. It sounds promising at first when the “ghost host” greets then with that iconic foyer music, until the Muppets are seen taking over the ride, as ignited by the famous stretching portraits: Janice as alligator girl, Crazy Harry as dynamite man, Link Hogthrob and two other pigs as the quicksand men… but no tombstone lady! Director Kirk R. Thatcher has been directing for the Muppets since 2002, so maybe they should have gotten a different director whose knowledge isn’t for the Muppets, but the ride, someone who would have made the exterior in this film look like the actual ride façade, and actually understood the spiritual essence of the ride. Then it wouldn’t have something out-of-place thrown into the mansion such as a potted plant with teeth, which has never been part of the ride, nor its seasonal Nightmare Before Christmas makeover.
This feature won’t work either as a spooky Halloween treat, because there are no scares aside from a small scene with John Stamos, which is just sad. It’s solely a comedy, which I mean in the loosest way because it just resorts to the rambling type of humor like seen in the most groan-worthy comedies ever made, as well as the meme-type of humor with a screaming goat who pops up more than once. It does still try to imitate the classic Muppet style of humor, and even at one point references the “At the Dance” sketch from The Muppet Show, with the layout of the jokes and everything, but none of those jokes are funny.
In this very long fifty-two-minute runtime, Pepé is just there to make jokes while Gonzo plays the straight man, and that’s all there is to their personalities; but hey, at least they act more human than any of the actual human characters do. With each fourth wall break and wasted celebrity cameo, I couldn’t help but think that this would have worked better if the cast was just entirely Muppets, no people included. But then again, it would probably be worse, as this current state of cartoonish special effects make the end product look obvious that it’s merely a straight-to-streaming release. Seriously, the singing busts look so awful with the superimposed faces and spray paint on their skin and hair, as if produced by a YouTube parody.
Now, it manages to be a teensy-weensy bit fun with how the easter eggs call back to two entirely separate properties, and there is a hint of genius in the way the number 999 flips upside-down into the number 666. I will even admit there are a couple of funny puns, such as when two duelists say, “draw,” only to literally draw a picture. It’s good that the audio is clear enough for me to pick up everything they’re saying, so I could pull out a few moments when I did laugh. That’s noteworthy because recording audio for puppeteers hidden beneath the sets sure isn’t easy!
But so what? A little creativity here and there and the admittedly hard work of a puppeteer isn’t enough to clean out a polluted pond of laziness. That’s mainly because the puppetry work is among the worst I have ever seen by a professional company. That’s not just because the voices of Kermit and Gonzo are way off from the 70s and 80s era, and not just because Pepé is a terrible singer, but chiefly because there is no animation whatsoever in the puppeteering, everyone moves so stilted, which looks worse when contrasted against the overacting human actors around them, all of which are celebrities that most people aren’t even that familiar with.
At least I can say with confidence that next Halloween, nobody will even be aware that Muppets Haunted Mansion ever existed, and only die-hard Muppet fans will acknowledge it. I guess that’s just what happens when you’re the 2021 equivalent of a quietly released direct-to-video kids’ movie whose fate is to just sit at the bottom of a clearance sale bin forever.
If there is a specific movie you’d like to see graded, or if you are interested in guest blogging for my site, please email me at Trevor@TrevorsViewOnHollywood.com for your recommendations.
Have a great weekend, and happy watching!