Muppets Haunted Mansion. PG, 52 minutes. Three stars
Recently The Rock and Emily Blunt helped breathe new life and many millions of future theme park visits into Disney's Jungle Cruise which, like Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise, began its life as an old-school ride at the Disneyland parks.
If you've ever been lucky enough to visit one of the Disney parks, you'll know these are sweet but fairly old-fashioned and low-stakes experiences and the films, frankly, brilliantly build a mythology and a wanting around them that one might argue exceeds the experience itself. It's all very clever and it's one of the reasons Disney is an unstoppable cultural cash machine.
With Halloween approaching, Disney tries to make that magic happen again, this time with their old-school Haunted Mansion experience. This time, the big stars aren't the likes of Dwayne Johnson and Johnny Depp, but they're just as famous to this film's audience demographic.
This is actually one of those moments of corporate synergy that Jack Donaghey would love mansplaining to the audience on 30 Rock, with Disney making use of one of the already gigantic franchises it bought up in recent years - The Muppets - to give its scary ride a marketing makeover. Muppets Haunted Mansion is a fun film and I very much enjoyed it, but at the same time it is wholly frustrating and nowhere near as successful in its intent as Jungle Cruise was.
The Haunted Mansion experience at the Disney parks in Los Angeles, Orlando, Paris and Tokyo enjoy millions of visitors a year (let's just ignore COVID and the last 18 months) but the potential viewing audience for this film is in the billion range, and the filmmakers here invest far too much effort in staying true to the "ride" - an experience most of us will never have and for which we feel no nostalgia or loyalty.
This weighs down the film's plot that kicks off at a Halloween costume party where the likes of Kermit and Miss Piggy are enjoying some clever costuming, dressing up as each other.
Intending to drop in at the party is Gonzo the Great (Dave Goelz) and his pal Pepe the Prawn (Bill Barretta), one of the newer arrivals to the Muppet franchise.
First, Gonzo and Pepe need to visit an abandoned mansion in the neighbourhood to pay homage to a legendary magician. In the graveyard outside, a grave digger (Darren Criss) and a chorus of ghouls warn them of the building's intriguing history. Once inside, the mansion's "host" (Will Arnett) discloses that the pair must face their greatest fear before the sun rises or they will join the many ghosts trapped inside the house forever. Cue ominous music.
This is a short, family-friendly 52-minute film and despite its brevity, manages to showcase the many Muppet characters across the mansion's 999 rooms, each inhabited by a ghostly tenant.
Miss Piggy has been a star for as long as I have been alive, and it is nice to see her stretching her acting chops, playing herself and a ghostly fortune teller named Madame Leota. In the latter role Piggy throws Norma Desmond-level scene chewing at us. She knows what her audience wants.
There are decent cameos of Muppets like Sweetums and Statler and Waldorf, but unfortunately the casting curse continues for Kermit's nephew Robin, possibly my favourite Muppet, once again shafted with barely a single line of dialogue.
The voice work behind the Muppets will challenge some longer-term fans as many of the original puppeteers and voice cast have moved on. Matt Vogel's Kermit voice doesn't feel a pinch on Jim Henson's original.
Big-name cameos are one of the delights of a Muppet film, and here among names like John Stamos, Arnett and one of the final performances from the late Ed Asner, Taraji P. Henson hams it up the most as a killer bride doing her best to trap Pepe the Prawn into becoming her next groom-victim.
Like all Muppet movies, there is a moral to be swallowed, and this one comes sweetly from Gonzo's realisation of the importance of friendship.
Streaming on Disney+, this might not be the best of the Muppet oeuvre, but simply because it is hard to replicate films as perfect as The Muppet Movie. It is still a solid block of family entertainment, with scares so low-stakes that all but the frailest of children should be able to enjoy.
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