Op-Ed: Disney doesn’t get the Muppets – Reviewing Muppets Haunted Mansion

Jonah Dietz, Senior Reporter

On Friday, October 8, 2021, Disney released its newest Muppet movie, “Muppets Haunted Mansion,” onto its streaming service after spending what looks to be most of the film’s budget on advertising, and although this publicity may have had fans excited that this new outing would recapture Muppet magic of old, the finished product is perhaps the worst thing to be associated with the Muppets since “A Muppet Christmas: Letters to Santa.” 

The movie (if it can be called that with a 45 minute runtime), follows fan-favorite Gonzo and apparently studio-favorite Pepe Prawn, as they spend a night in the world’s most haunted mansion to complete the haunted mansion challenge. Who challenged them to do this? What’s the prize? The answer to the first question is never given because the movie doesn’t care. The answer to the second question is maybe answered but I’ve already forgotten because the movie doesn’t care. 

What the movie does care about is pushing the audience through computer-generated room after computer-generated room full of beloved Muppets playing various tired Halloween tropes as they bemoan their small parts in the film. Most of the movie’s humor derives from Muppets pointing out the small budget and their inconsequential cameos.   

The budget, however, shouldn’t be given a pass simply because it was lampshaded. If there’s a place the movie suffers the most outside of the story, it’s the strange, off-putting greenscreen background in every shot. It’s painfully obvious the cast was never anywhere tangible and rarely together, which, considering the pandemic, is good for the crew, but bad for the experience.

The characters are as one-dimensional as the backdrop, with Gonzo’s motivation being self-imposed compliance to his brand and Pepe’s being a party full of famous people he believes will be in the mansion. (This “joke” is played straight for twenty minutes, with Pepe searching for famous women and a lavish party even after being explicitly told this is useless by a reanimated corpse.) Why Disney has decided Pepe Prawn, an ugly, little puppet playing on vaguely racist latin stereotypes from the nineties, should be a star in all of their output is inconceivable. The character is annoying and desperately unfunny. 

Disney makes a load of questionable choices, as it has with the Muppets for a decade, with important plot points dropped off-screen, outdated internet humor (there’s a screaming goat), and an over-reliance on meta humor it clearly doesn’t understand in favor of any emotional core. It’s understandable that the studio wishes to keep hold of one of the most endearing qualities of the Muppets, their self-degrading, referential wit, but during a time in media when the fourth wall doesn’t really exist at all anymore, it feels weightless and cheap.

That’s really an apt way to describe this film and Disney’s Muppets as a whole: weightless and cheap. The soul is gone. Something the great Frank Oz (Jim Henson’s longtime friend and collaborator) has said about the studio’s version of the characters. 

Henson, creator of the Muppets, only made three movies with the characters, and although they vary in quality, they endure as timeless comedic dramas that push the boundaries of puppeteering, latch onto the hearts of viewers and craft three-dimensional characters we can all relate to.

Disney has yet to do anything of value with the Muppets since 2011’s “The Muppets” and consistently fails to understand what makes them lovable, enjoyable and watchable characters. Honestly, without Jim Henson or anyone who truly cares about the Muppets, I’d rather they just be left to history; unique, timeless and soulful puppets that pushed boundaries and shattered expectations and corporate greed, which will never have a better puppet master and will never, in this film landscape of monopolistic, studio-driven capitalism, see the lights of the theater again.