Sunday, October 31, 2021

Muppets Haunted Mansion

Premiered October 8, 2021.

One hundred years ago, on All Hallows' Eve, the a magician known as the Great MacGuffin disappeared in a haunted mansion.  In the present day, on Halloween night, Gonzo The Great (Dave Goelz) and his friend Pepe the King Prawn (Bill Barretta) are participating in a fear challenge in the very same mansion, which is believed to be the most haunted mansion in the world.  Gonzo is especially excited about this, since MacGuffin is his favorite magician.  Pepe is along for the ride because he believes the mansion will be filled with partying celebrities.

At the same time, their friends Kermit the frog (Matt Vogel) and Miss Piggy (Eric Jacobson) are hosting the Muppets' annual costume party.  They're disappointed Gonzo and Pepe won't be attending. 

Upon arrival at the mansion, Pepe and Gonzo are greeted by the caretaker (Darren Criss) and several ghosts. 

Inside, they meet their "Ghost Host" (Will Arnett), who gives them a tour of the mansion and explains the terms of the challenge: Inside the mansion's walls, they must face all their fears bravely.  Pepe and Gonzo must stay in the mansion all night but if they fail to do so, they will be trapped inside forever!  The host says the house is filled with spirits that will respond to their "sympathetic vibrations."  

Throughout the evening, they will encounter lots of interesting characters, including:

Madam Pigota, the spirit of a psychic medium who speaks in rhymes.  She gives clues to Gonzo and Pepe that may help them find a way out of the mansion.

Gauzey the Hat Box Bear (Eric Jacobson), a comedian who performs at the mansion's vaudeville show.

Constance Hathaway (Taraji P. Henson), who tells Pepe she wants to marry him. 

And John Stamos

Unbeknownst to Pepe, Constance has killed all five of her previous husbands and their ghosts are now stuck in the mansion.  She plans to kill Pepe after marrying him.  Gonzo figures this out and tries to intervene.

However, Gonzo has his own problems.  The ghost host informs him that if he wants to survive the night, he must go to room 999.  Inside that room, Gonzo must face his greatest fear.

Will Gonzo and Pepe make it through the night?  Or will they be trapped in the Haunted Mansion forever?

J.A. Morris says: 

Since the Jim Henson's death, the Muppets haven't always been handled well.  Muppet movies and TV have been very inconsistent in recent decades.  What Henson and his collaborators understood was that Muppets programming needed a combination of child-like sentiment and a little bit of edgy humor.  I'm happy to report that Muppets Haunted Mansion reminds me a lot of the humor of The Muppet Show and the early Muppets films.  

Gonzo and Pepe get the spotlight here, instead of usual "leads" like Kermit or Miss Piggy.  Dave Goelz (of the the original Muppeteers) and Bill Barretta do a nice job carrying the special.  All the other Muppet performs are good as well, especially puppeteers who play the Electric Mayhem band.  Their performance of "Dancing In The Moonlight" is a nice moment.  

The human actors in Muppets Haunted Mansion are also entertaining.  Will Arnett brings just enough spookiness and mystery as the mansion's ghost host.  Taraji P. Henson is great as the murderous Constance Hathaway.  Most of Henson's scenes feature her interacting with Pepe.  It takes a lot of talent to believably interact with a king prawn.  

Lots of famous actors make cameo appearances as ghosts.  I don't have the time or space here to name of all of them, but it's worth noting that the late Ed Asner plays one of the ghosts.  It's one of his final roles and it was nice to see him here

The only problem I had with Muppets Haunted Mansion was the performance of the song "Grim, Grinning Ghosts," a song that originated at Disney's Haunted Mansion theme park attraction.  It's one of the best original songs written for their parks. 

I didn't have a problem with Darren Criss' performance of the song, I just thought "Grim, Grinning Ghosts" deserved a bigger number than what we get here.  The special's major production number is reserved for the original song "Life Hereafter," which I also enjoyed.  

I enjoyed Muppets Haunted Mansion more than any recent Muppet production and I hope it's the start of a new "golden age" of Muppets film and TV.  It's highly recommended to fans of Muppets fans of every age and it's something I figure I'll watch often around Halloween in the future.

J.A. Morris' rating:

4 jack o'lanterns!

RigbyMel says:

Having a nostalgic affection for both the Muppets AND Disney's celebrated Haunted Mansion dark ride, I was quite intrigued when this Muppets special was announced for Disney+.   I was also a little bit nervous about it because, as J.A. Morris points out above, post-Henson Muppets output has been on the uneven side.  

It turns out that this new special contains enough Muppet mayhem and Haunted Mansion spookiness to make my nostalgic heart very happy indeed. 

Not only was the story fun, but there were all kinds of cool little Easter eggs (Halloween treats?) sprinkled throughout.   

For instance, we see Mah Na Mah Na candelabra in the stretching room near the beginning of Gonzo and Pepe's adventure. 

When Statler and Waldorf show up, they heckle the proceedings from a "Doom Buggy" - the mode of transit park guests take during the actual Haunted Mansion dark ride

There are also appearances by some pretty old school Muppets like Wayne and Wanda.   

Plus the "casting" of the Muppets in various ghostly Haunted Mansion roles was pretty darned inspired -- and we even get non-sequitur screaming goats thrown into the mix for good measure!

It is quite evident from all the clever meta-humor and an optimal balance of spooky and funny that the writers (Bill Barretta, Kirk R. Thatcher, and Kelly Younger) love the Muppets and the Haunted Mansion and they've done a great job of bringing the spirit of Jim Henson and his creations to the screen in this special. 

Muppets Haunted Mansion is the Muppets/Halloween/Haunted Mansion (monster?) mash-up we didn't know we needed and is recommended viewing for Muppet fans and Haunted Mansion fans of all ages. 

RigbyMel's rating: 

4 jack o'lanterns! 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Halloween Is Grinch Night

Premiered October 29, 1977.

On an autumn evening in Whoville, Josiah Who (Hal Smith) notices that the sour-sweet wind is blowing.  Josiah tells his family that they need to get indoors and stay there, because the winds are a sign that Grinch Night is about to begin!

At his home on Mount Crumpit, the Grinch (Hans Conreid) hitches his paraphernalia wagon to his dog Max (Henry Gibson) and sets out towards Whoville.  Max doesn’t enjoy working for the Grinch and wonders to himself why he still does it.

Whoville’s Grinch Alarm Warden Sergeant Samuel S. McPherson (Jack DeLeon) watches the Grinch’s movements and promises the Whos that he will keep them posted about his activities.

On his way to Whoville, the Grinch defoliates trees, runs over flowers and chases after the rare wuzzy woozoo.

In the middle of Grinch Night, Josiah’s grandson Euchariah (Gary Shapiro) says he needs to go outside to use “the euphemism.”  Unfortunately, Euchariah is caught by the sour-sweet winds and carried far away to the mountains.  He winds up in the exact same spot as the Grinch.  

The Grinch tells Euchariah he has no time for him and continues towards Whoville.  The young Who realizes that he has to be brave, stall for time and prevent the Grinch from reaching the town. 

Euchariah asks the Grinch to scare him.  The Grinch responds by sending an array of monsters and ghosts at Euchariah.  Can Euchariah stop the Grinch from Grinching Whoville?

J.A. Morris says:
I saw this special back when it first premiered and I recall being very excited that the Grinch was getting a second holiday special.  So I bring some nostalgia to this review.  When I was a kid, I remember being confused because at the end of his Christmas special, it would appear that the Grinch had reformed his ways and become a better person.  I guess this special doesn’t share any continuity with the first (any more than A Charlie Brown Christmas shares any continuity with It’s The Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown).  

We should mention that in spite of the title, the word “Halloween” is never mentioned in the special. Nor is trick or treating or anything traditionally associated with All Hallow’s Eve.  I guess in the Who’s universe (Whoniverse?) Grinch Night is their equivalent to Halloween.  

Euchariah is a sympathetic protagonist.  Unlike the adult Whos, he stands up to the Grinch.  The Grinch we see here seems a little more evil than in his previous appearance, striking out not because he finds Christmas annoying, but simply because he feels like it.  

The animation is gorgeous, especially the sequence where the Grinch tries to frighten Euchariah, which is the high point of the special.  It's filled with creepy ghosts and monsters that show off Dr. Seuss' wonderful imagination.   It's a visually stunning sequence.

There's also an amusing scene where the Grinch's eyebrows come to life and chase Euchariah!

The voice cast is also strong.  Hans Conreid takes over the voice of the Grinch from the deceased Boris Karloff and he also narrates the special.  Conreid was a famous voice actor, best remembered for voicing Captain Hook and Snidely Whiplash.  Hal Smith, who has voiced Santa in multiple holiday specials, is good as Josiah Who.  Henry Gibson voices Max the dog and he sings a sweet, sad song which questions why Max continues to do the Grinch’s dirty work for the Grinch.  

This is a solid, entertaining special, but it’s not in the same class as How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, which is probably why it never became an annual holiday TV fixture For starters, the songs and dialogue are very vague about what the Grinch will do to Whoville.  Will he cause them actual, physical harm?  Steal from their homes like he did at Christmas?  Or just give them a very intense Grinch Night scare?  

Halloween Is Grinch Night features songs composed by Joe Raposo, who wrote dozens of great songs for Sesame Street and The Electric Company.  The songs are all pretty good, especially Max’s aforementioned song.  However, Raposo's tunes are a step down from the songs featured in the Christmas special.  They won’t stick with you forever like “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” or “Fahoofores Dahoodores.”  

Halloween Is Grinch night is something everyone should watch at least once, but I doubt it’ll be something most will want to watch every October.  

J.A. Morris' rating:

3 jack o'lanterns.

RigbyMel says: 

I remember seeing Halloween is Grinch Night on the Disney Channel sometime in the mid-1980s.  I thought it was ok then and still feel like it's pretty ok now.  

I appreciate the trippy-ness of the sequence where the Grinch attempts to frighten our protagonist. (Side note: on the subject of trippy-ness, it seems to me that some of the graphic design in this sequence owes a lot to the 1968 animated film Yellow Submarine -- just played for creeps as opposed to peace and love.)  

Also the sheer unholy joy the Grinch takes in being his grinch-iest self  is quite fun to watch. 

However, this special doesn't have the magic that makes the 1966 version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas a classic that people come back to year after year.   I think there are a couple of reasons for this.   First,  this special isn't based on a book like its better known sibling.  As a result, although the rhythm and rhyme are fun (how could they not be with Dr. Seuss?),  they're just not quite as catchy and memorable as in the original Christmas classic. 

Secondly, I think the story is not quite as satisfying plot-wise.  What exactly is the Grinch going to do when he descends Mount Crumpit?   Scare anyone foolish enough to be outside?  Prank them?  Steal their apple cider?  It's not really clear.  

Plus, unlike in the 1966 Christmas special, there is no "heart grew three sizes" type transformation in this  -- meaning the Grinch remains a rather flat character in Halloween Is Grinch Night. Maybe this has something to do with Halloween being less codified than Christmas as a holiday.  Christmas changes of heart are common -- a la Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch himself.   Perhaps I am reading too much into an animated special aimed at entertaining children? 

As J.A. Morris mentions,  the special makes no mention of Halloween other than in the title.  However, the setting is definitely autumnal and definitely spooky.   

All in all, Halloween is Grinch Night is enjoyable enough, but not a perennial classic special. 

RigbyMel's rating: 

2 jack o'lanterns.