Director Kirk Thatcher has worked with the Muppets for decades and, in all that time, he’d been hoping to help orchestrate a Halloween special. Following the success of last year’s short-form Disney+ series “Muppets Now,” Thatcher is getting his wish with the new “Muppets Haunted Mansion.” The 40-minute special sees the Great Gonzo, along with his friend Pepe the Prawn, visit the titular Haunted Mansion in the hopes of spending the night. Little does the pair know about the 999 happy haunts that live there — and those haunts’ desire to make Gonzo No. 1,000.
“There are three things that affected me growing up: Ray Harryhausen movies, Disneyland — particularly the Haunted Mansion, the Tiki Room, and Pirates of the Caribbean — and obviously the Muppets,” Thatcher, who’s worked with the Muppets for 35 years, told IndieWire. Unofficially, you could also include Halloween. Thatcher said he remembers being a small child humming the Haunted Mansion score as soon as the leaves started changing.
“The Muppets have done, like, nine Christmas specials — this is the first [for] Halloween. Why is that?” he said. No matter the reason, when offered the opportunity to insert the characters into the popular Disneyland attraction, Thatcher envisioned a Muppet-tinged throwback to the horror features of Abbott and Costello.
“The best compliment we got from the Imagineering team was they told us there has been 200 projects over the years involving the Haunted Mansion and the biggest issue usually is [those past projects] get the grim but not the grinning,” he said.
With that adage in mind, the production had its work cut out for it balancing the humor of the Muppets with the spookiness of the Haunted Mansion, and sometimes things got out of hand. Case in point, the presentation of Fozzie Bear as the skeletal Hatbox Ghost. They decided to give the bear teeth, in order to better blend Fozzie with the Haunted Mansion character, but the whole thing came off as unnerving, according to Thatcher.
“The Hatbox Ghost is a skeleton face, which I tried giving Fozzie cheekbones but you didn’t want [him] to look like a rotting bear. So I said, ‘Well, we got to give him teeth,'” Thatcher said. Though audiences might be freaked out by it, the director said that’s the point. There are still supposed to be scary elements — just ones that can be preceded or followed by a laugh.
From a historical standpoint, the production got to play with all areas of the Haunted Mansion. “The biggest challenge was, ‘Where do we shoot it?'” said Thatcher. “We didn’t have the schedule and the budget, to be to be frank, to build our own Haunted Mansion.” They decided to employ a similar technique as what’s used on another Disney+ series, “The Mandalorian,” and crafted a virtual set on a giant LED screen.
Because the technology was so new and the production knew there wasn’t a lot of downtime, the fear was that the learning curve would be too steep, but Thatcher said it was just like working with any other computer. Due to pandemic-related safety precautions, the production also had to employ shooting in layers, where the puppets and the guests wouldn’t be filming in the same space. “Will Arnett essentially did a big song number where who he was singing with and to, most of the time, weren’t there,” said Thatcher.
“Muppets Haunted Mansion” wasn’t strictly an opportunity to bring back the Muppets for a Halloween special, but to allow the Muppets to act. For Thatcher, it’s impossible not to see the Muppets as actors and it’s not often enough they get to play characters outside of who we know them as. “I, personally, like them playing roles,” Thatcher said. “To me, the Muppets have always been like Monty Python. […] Part of the appeal was we get to see them as the Muppets, but then we get to see this Haunted Mansion version of them.”
The script even went so far as to situate this in the narrative so children would understand the characters weren’t playing dress-up, but were in character, thus the need to assert that Gonzo was feeling the “sympathetic vibrations” of the Mansion.
Recently, long-time Henson associate Frank Oz criticized Disney for not utilizing the Muppets in the right way, and in spite of his claims, Thatcher said he still gets interesting ideas from outsiders about where to put the moments. He didn’t read the story, but he’s even been pitched a Muppets take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.”
It’s hoped this special might open the door for more Muppet specials. Thatcher said he’d love to do a sci-fi adventure with the Muppets, a superhero parody, and even a James Bond spin. He’s even envisioned a Muppets Western, which has been kicking around in Thatcher’s head for awhile, conceived with his long-time mentor, the late Jerry Juhl, after the pair worked on 1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island.”
“I would love to do a big silly Western along the lines of the ‘Support Your Local Sheriff’ [or] ‘Little Big Man.’ Something that was that epic scale, but with the silliness of the Muppets,” he said, noting it takes a certain type of material to use the Muppets, which is why genres tend to work better than specific books.
Thathcer said he’d been pitched a Muppets version of “Dungeons and Dragons,” where Kermit the Frog’s voice would come out of someone like Jason Momoa. “That’s a great idea, but that’s a huge budget,” he said. “You don’t spend $100 million doing an epic ‘Star Wars’ movie with the Muppets in it. If we were gonna do a ‘Star Wars’-type movie, we should do it for one-third of that budget, you can see the cardboard on the walls, and they’ll joke about it.”
He said any story that’s too grand and polished also loses what a lot of people love about the Muppets, which is their homemade look. It’s one reason Thatcher feels a CGI version of the characters would be wrong. “You kind of lose that tactile quality to them,” he said. “They have done museum tours where it’s just the Muppets on stands and people go bananas because the physicality of them is so endearing.”
“Muppets Haunted Mansion” premieres Friday, October 8 on Disney+.