My younger readers may not recall a curious media phenomenon, a relic of the '90s and the period when the Walt Disney Company was expanding its theme parks at a rate unmatched before or since. To promote these new attractions - Disneyland Paris, Animal Kingdom in Florida, various new rides and facelifts to existing attractions - Disney produced television specials that largely consisted of various celebrities walking around the park, pointing at things and cracking weak jokes. The distant memory of these specials was never far from my mind during Muppets Haunted Mansion, a 50-minute mini-movie produced for Disney+ as the long-mooted first-ever Muppets Halloween special; it basically amounts to nothing but a comic walking tour of the Haunted Mansion, the beloved dark ride found at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Tokyo Disneyland, conducted in this case by the Muppets, who were once the heartfelt brainchild of Jim Henson before being turned into just another Disney brand. It's not even the first time the Muppets have been used in this kind of cross-promotion; in 1990, one of those specials I was just talking about was The Muppets at Walt Disney World, which aired on NBC on May 6, just ten days before Henson died. That was back when Disney merely wanted to buy the Muppets, and had not creative authority to ruin the characters yet.

Well, they have that authority now, and I for one don't think they've done anything at all good with it. Watching the Muppets play the good foot soldiers for Disney to advertise its own properties would be dispiriting under any circumstances, even if the project in question was more-or-less decent as a Muppet vehicle per se. And to be fair, Muppets Haunted Mansion sometimes rises to the level of more-or-less decent. It has some good fourth wall-breaking, as when a haunted bust of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew's head sadly notes to a haunted bust of Beaker that they only get this brief cameo because there wasn't room for them in the budget. And the mixture of puppetry and visual effects is mostly fun; built into the concept is the need for most of the Muppets to appear as translucent ghosts floating around the mansion, and the puppet operators are having fun exploring the potential of the full-body Muppets. Also, if we care more about quantity than quality, this is one of the most packed Muppet properties there has ever been: besides the main corpus of Muppets, there are cameos from characters as obscure as Wayne and Wanda, the deliberately boring dancing couple who haven't been a consistent fixture of Muppet media since the first season of The Muppet Show ended in 1977 (for that matter, the "haunted ballroom" sequence is based on the recurring "At the Dance" sketch that mostly appeared in the same season).

The problem is with the boilerplate kiddie morality play narrative, one that treats the Muppets as somewhat indistinct non-personalities with none of the prickly antagonism that secretly undergirds the characters at their best. The plot goes like this: Gonzo (Dave Goelz) is celebrating Halloween night by traveling to the haunted mansion where the stage magician The Great MacGuffin disappeared exactly 100 years ago to the day ("the Great MacGuffin" is one of the special's best jokes). This means he has to disappoint all of his friends, including Kermit the frog (Matt Vogel), Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson), Scooter (David Rudman), and all of the rest, by skipping the gang's annual Halloween party. But at least he is accompanied by the shrill Hispanic caricature Pepe the prawn (Bill Barretta), one of my least-favorite additions to the Muppet canon over the last 30 years. After providing some dully amusing jokes - Kermit and Piggy dressed as each other, Scooter's bad Elvis impression - the Muppet party doesn't come back into play; instead, the characters all show up as figures from the Haunted Mansion ride, for that is of course where Gonzo and Pepe are headed. The bulk of the special - and a very slow-moving bulk it is, for something so short - consists of the two of them traipsing through scenes based on the ride, in the order they appear there. And this starts as early as the queue to get into the ride building: the first of three original songs ("original" in this case is stretching things awfully far) finds cameoing celebrity Darren Criss singing the macabre rhyming couplets found on the tombstones outside of the ride (each tombstone hosting a ghost played by another cameo celebrity, among them the late Ed Asner, in whose memory the special has been dedicated, and returning Muppet guest star Danny Trejo).

This feeds right into the dirty not-very-secret that Muppets Haunted Mansion is more of a nostalgia property for the theme park attraction than for the Muppets themselves. And I have no dislike of the Haunted Mansion. It is a wonderful ride whose iconic status is well-earned. But there's something wearying about how much the script by Barretta, Kirk R. Thatcher (who also directs), & Kelly Younger recreates practically every line from the ride, most of them by putting designated main human Will Arnett into the role of the Ghost Host, the unseen narrator of the ride. And not just the lines: they've even gone so far as to plug in a joke about the audio that plays when the ride that stops during the breakdown; at one point, a (very adorable) ghost Muppet jumps into frame and shouts "boo", accompanied by the noisy pneumatic "puff" that accompanies many of the ride effects.

I suppose this is cute enough, in the most brutally functional "if you like this thing, perhaps you will like it again with the most insignificant tweaks applied" sort of way. The very crudeness with which Muppets Haunted Mansion replicates the beats of the ride makes it more honest, and therefore less unlikable, than Disney's last attempt at turning this ride into a filmed story, 2003's The Haunted Mansion, but it's still very hard to look at this and see anything other that a massive corporations nudging different elements of its empire into contact with each other, just to see what happens.

What happens, in this case, is to reduce the Muppets to fairly generic dispensers of self-aware jokes, and then even more generic dispensers of homilies about the importance of friendship. The special's tight running time doesn't leave enough room for actual thematic or psychological development, so basically it just lets Gonzo glide through various ghostly setpieces before deciding he feels bad that he didn't go to his friend's Halloween party, and that's pretty much it. It feels tacked-on not out of any real sense that the character was heading in this direction, but out of some vague sense that what one does with children's entertainment is to provide an easy-to-digest moral with no controversial edges to it. My attitude towards the special had been steadily softening across its running time: the opening, which starts with an excruciatingly arbitrary pop music cover ("Dancing in the Moonlight", performed by Barretta as Muppet bandleader Dr. Teeth), and then subjects us almost immediately to Vogel's remarkably bad take on Kermit (Vogel officially took the character over in 2017, but he hasn't had much of a showcase role yet - mostly just the short-lived and indifferently received Disney+ show Muppets Now in 2020. It's tough to say if he needs more opportunities to work the character out, or if he just doesn't have the acumen for the part, but it's a pretty shocking take on the iconic figure, both in vocal and physical performance), is dismal and rushed, but the longer it's just Gonzo and Pepe wandering through the Muppet-ified sets based on the ride locations, and into Muppet-ified versions of the ride characters, it's amusing enough; the self-referential humor is mostly good, and it does a fairly good job of bringing in Muppet characters as ghosts, though Kermit remains dismal and Jacobson's Piggy lacks a strong enough personality to fit her one scene.

Still, it's sort of charming, right up until it suddenly starts trying to cram in sentimentality right at the end. Flippant humor was the only card Muppets Haunted Mansion ever had to play; pivoting hard to meaningful emotions in the last five minutes, even on the strength of a pretty nifty redesign of the Gonzo puppet to motivate that pivot, strips away everything that gave it a distinctive tone, and just transforms it into kiddie-flick mush. This is no doubt somebody's idea of the proper emotional mode for the Muppets, but it is emphatically not mine, and it's sufficient to turn a special I was already finding somewhat drab into one I actively disliked.