The Muppets have a long and glorious history of taking nothing seriously. Muppets Haunted Mansion is a first, though: this time they’re not mocking TV genres, pop culture cliches or a beloved piece of literature, but a classic Disney theme park attraction. It’s been a long time coming; the Muppets made their Disney parks debut over 30 years ago, and have been outright owned by the Mouse since 2004. Fans of Jim Henson’s creations and Walt Disney’s theme parks can rest easy—this one-off special is a loving homage to both Kermit’s crew and Disney’s grim grinning ghosts.
Muppets Haunted Mansion feels like a special episode of the classic Muppet Show. It’s a cameo-filled goof that roughly follows the structure of the ride, but with a story that sees Gonzo and Pepe the King Prawn visiting an infamous haunted house on the 100th anniversary of a legendary stage magician’s disappearance within. (Shades of Abracadabar, the swanky magic-themed bar at Disney World with a similar backstory.) Gonzo hopes to find out what happened to the magician, while Pepe just hopes to meet some celebrities at what he assumes is a high-end Hollywood party. Along the way they’re haunted by the house’s large lineup of ghosts, characters from the ride played by classic Muppets and the occasional guest celebrity. A valuable lesson about confronting your fears is learned, and the fourth wall isn’t just broken but jumped through again and again like the Kool Aid Man blasting through walls on a bender. Most importantly, laughs are had by all, with the combination of intentionally cornball Vaudeville schtick and genuine irreverence that the Muppets have long been known for.
You can probably already guess some of the specific gags in this show. Yes, the changing portraits in the Haunted Mansion queue and the fateful paintings in the ride’s stretching room are remade with recognizable Muppets. Yes, Rowlf is playing the organ during the ballroom scene (and yes, Rowlf shrugs with his trademark “eh, it’s a gig” deadpan gruffness.) Yes, Miss Piggy plays Madame Leota, the medium whose head is ensconced within a floating crystal ball. (And yes, always hungry for the spotlight, Piggy breaks character to complain about only being in this one scene and not being the star of the show.) Some specific jokes and references might be expected, but that doesn’t make it less funny, or less fitting, when they happen.
Fortunately the special is often more inspired than you might expect. That ballroom scene is explicitly framed like the “At the Dance” segment that was a regular part of The Muppet Show, with its procession of groan-worthy one-liners, and appearances by relatively obscure characters like the dancing duo Wayne and Wanda. Statler and Waldorf, ever the audience members, appear in the middle of Fozzie the Hatbox Bear’s comedy act in one of the ride’s vehicles; as often happens on the real Haunted Mansion, the ride stalls right after they show up on screen, complete with the actual warning message heard during a delay on the ride. At its best, Muppets Haunted Mansion works on both levels, riffing on both the Muppets and the ride itself. If you’re familiar with one, you’ll find it funny; if you’re a fan of both, even more so.
As usually found in the best Muppets work, there’s a dollop of tender sincerity at the special’s heart, in a way that’s sweet but not overly saccharine. That mix of heart and showbiz satire is what makes the Muppets tick—it’s a little schmaltzy, a little sarcastic, and fully aware of how sordid and artificial the entertainment world is, while still keeping its cynicism at arms’ reach. Muppets Haunted Mansion pulls all of that off, while still finding room for a lengthy subplot about a ghostly Taraji P. Henson trying to marry (and then murder) a shrimp puppet. It’s a silly, ultimately heartfelt hour destined to become a holiday favorite for fans of Disney parks, the Muppets, or just felt in general.
Muppets Haunted Mansion is now streaming on Disney+.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.