The Germans, in all their linguistic inventiveness, need to coin a new word for the unique mix of eagerness and hesitation Jim Henson fans feel when a new Muppets project is announced. The simple fact is that the Disney era of the franchise has been a roller coaster, reaching heights of delightful silliness like 2011’s The Muppets and plunging to depths of pointlessness like 2005’s The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. Thankfully, when all is said and done, Muppets Haunted Mansion is far from the worst we’ve seen from the franchise this century. But it is a bit of a mixed bag.
Let’s start with what doesn’t work about the hour-long Halloween special. For one thing, it all feels a bit formulaic in its structure and narrative. You could argue that’s a consequence of the premise, and you’d have a pretty good point. But I still miss the days when the Muppets were so utterly off the rails that you felt uncomfortable watching a new movie or TV show with kids, at least the first time around, for fear Animal or Floyd might drop an F-bomb. Not that they ever would, but the Muppets at their best once gave you the impression they might. And Muppets Haunted Mansion feels far too safe and by-the-numbers to even hint at such a potential.
There’s also the fact that some of the voice acting is just atrocious. This is the first major Muppets production since Steve Whitmire, longtime performer of Kermit the Frog, was
HAUNTED MANSION AT A GLANCE
Not the best Muppet effort ever, it’s not the worst, either, and will likely find an audience as one of the few family-friendly Halloween specials around.
The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is so flawless that it’s, at times, startling.
The audio lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could benefit from a bit more activity in the surrounds.
fired and replaced by Matt Vogel (and yes, yes, I know about Muppets Now, but I’ve never been able to suffer through enough of it for it to leave a lasting impression). And no disrespect to Mr. Vogel—he does a perfectly fine Floyd and a darned good Sweetums—but he’s not and never will be Kermit. He just doesn’t get the character.
A problem more specific to this special is that the music is, for the most part, just awful. There are a handful of original songs, and every time I could sense another one coming, my body tensed up in anticipation of the awfulness. There are two exceptions, though. The special opens and closes with a cover of King Harvest’s version of “Dancing in the Moonlight” performed by Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem. It’s simply fantastic and there’s really nothing else to say about it. It rocks.
There’s also a really fun duet between Pepe the King Prawn and Taraji P. Henson, who stars as Constance Hatchaway (aka the Black Widow Bride from the theme-park ride that inspired this crossover). Not only is the song well written and well performed, it also hints at the naughtiness of the Muppets at their best.
But the best thing about the number is that it’s just a prime example of Pepe being Pepe. Seriously, every second that fuzzy little king prawn is on screen is pure comedy gold. It probably helps, of course, that longtime Pepe performer Bill Barretta wrote the story for Muppets Haunted Mansion, and I could take issue with the fact that he gave all the best bits to his own
character, but who cares, really? If you’re a Pepe fan, this one is a must-watch, even if it is a bit uneven, even if the music mostly sucks, even if Kermit has been replaced by a half-assed imposter.
Another great thing about Muppets Haunted Mansion is that production values are through the roof. Seriously, the special boasts a level of cinematography and special effects you’d expect from a proper feature film. The Disney+ Dolby Vision presentation is also so utterly flawless that I was, at
times, startled by it. The opening sequence features a particularly difficult-to-encode shot of Pepe and Gonzo driving to the titular haunted mansion in the midst of the sort of pea-soup fog that HEVC would have nightmares about if video codecs had subconsciousness. And while that shot is the most extreme example, there are a lot of sequences that must have required a few passes through whatever video encoder Disney+ relies on.
Unsurprisingly, given the subject matter, Haunted Mansion sports some pretty dark cinematography, and the Dolby Vision grading gives the imagery a lot of depth in the shadows while also leaving some dynamic range for the specular highlights of spectral apparitions.
Production- and presentation-wise, the only complaints I have are related to the audio, which lacks a little in terms of dynamics and could have benefited from a bit more activity in the surrounds or, at the very least, a bit more consistency in the surround mixing. Dialogue is always presented cleanly and clearly, and the music—whatever you want to say about its compositional quality—is always delivered with good fidelity. But whoever did the final mix seemingly couldn’t decide between a full-on cinematic surround experience or a front-heavy TV-special vibe, and switched between those two extremes from scene to scene with apparently no rhyme or reason.
For all the nits picked above, though, Muppets Haunted Mansion ends up being a pretty good time, mostly due to the antics of Pepe combined with the gorgeousness of the imagery. If you have kids, I’m also pretty sure they’ll love the whole thing. And that, ultimately, is the thing I like best about this special. Fun Halloween specials that can be enjoyed by the whole family are few and far between, and it’s nice to see another one added to the mix, even if it’s not quite as good as it could have been.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.