Disney's second try at bringing this famous attraction to the big screen could be more consistent at moments, but it's a pleasant ghost story for families expecting a spooky and fun time.
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"Haunted Mansion" is the latest film from Disney, bringing to life one of the most beloved rides from Disneyland and Magic Kingdom and giving it the ‘ol supernatural horror-comedy spin. Since we all know the studio will now be associated with remaking their classic animated films into live-action, we forget they will also turn some of their most popular theme park attractions and make them into feature films that don't cost almost $100 to get inside.
They found success with audiences flocking to see every installment in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and squandered its potential with "Tomorrowland" and, unfortunately, "The Country Bears.”
This is the studio’s second attempt at bringing the long-running attraction to the big screen. Eddie Murphy starred in their first attempt in 2003 during the height of his popularity. And without sugarcoating it, there is nothing redeemable about it. "The Haunted Mansion" is right up there as one of the worst movies from Disney, leaving many to wonder why it was made when it lacked what made the ride an unforgettable experience.
When I was a kid, I remember taking part in the ride, and it completely scared me, as it would for any little kid who would go on a scary ride. The question remains if I found it terrifying as an adult. The development process of getting this off the ground had some promise when Guillermo Del Toro and Ryan Gosling were initially attached, only to get scrapped later on. That was a bummer.
But with this cast and the trailers looking decent, maybe this redo can lead to a fun time from director Justin Simien ("Dear White People") and writer Katie Dippold (2016’s "Ghostbusters"). Sometimes it’s possible to make something cinematic out of the rides people have ridden thousands of times.
In the week since I saw it, it settled on a mixed bag when it could have been much better. Disney fans will find this to be a pleasant, if forgettable, love letter to the beloved theme park ride.
Down on the streets of New Orleans, Ben Matthais (LaKeith Standfield) is a former astrophysicist turned cynical tour guide conducting tours of the creepiest areas of the city. He’s been this way after the tragic loss of his wife. But a strange opportunity comes knocking at his door from Father Kent (Owen Wilson), who asks him to help a single mother named Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her nine-year-old son Travis (Chase W. Dillion). They thought moving to a new home would give them a fresh start in life. The downside? They discovered a bevy of ghosts inhabiting the house within minutes of getting a feel for the place. How many, to be exact? 999 spirits.
Ben doesn't buy it at first, only to discover anyone who steps inside will instantly get haunted too. To exorcize the estate from these ghosts once and for all, Gabbie also enlists the help of Kent, college history professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), and a medium named Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). Soon they will all be aware of the secrets that await them within the walls of the haunted mansion.
Surprisingly enough, this started on the right foot, it doesn’t waste any time showing us how creepy the titular home is right before the title shows up. What "Haunted Mansion" gets right is bringing the spirit of what those loved about the ride, and differing vastly from the ill-fated Eddie Murphy vehicle. With the characters finding out why they’re here and how to get them out won't be that easy. It isn’t as simple as bringing in the Ghostbusters for a simple job.
In keeping with the tone it sets out to capture, you sense Simien and Dippold have a lot of respect and admiration for the ride, not only expanding the ride's backstory but also showing off the impressive production design inside the house for that gothic appeal to immerse the audiences and some serviceable visual effects.
With this diverse ensemble having fun playing this motley crew of zany characters, everyone had time to shine when sharing the screen. They elevate the film when you know what type of performance a few will be based on what we’ve seen from them before.
The standout from all of them? LaKeith Stanfield. He has slowly been rising as one of the best actors working today, and it was a surprise to see the Oscar-nominated actor in a leading role that’s charming and almost relatable for his character is dealing with. We get to know him personally when we see him starting as a skeptic, only to find this an advantage to what he used to believe in.
Another surprise from the cast was Chase W. Dillion as Travis. He could've been just an annoying kid character to get under our skin. Fortunately, he wasn’t, as somebody trying his hardest to make friends and he even has a few bonding moments with Ben. There aren’t many scenes of Jamie Lee Curtis, who plays Madame Leota, trapped inside a crystal ball, and the same goes with Jared Leto as the villainous Hatbox Ghost, which could’ve been anybody in the role, especially since it’s a CGI character.
I’ve always been fond of Owen Wilson in almost everything he does and he turns in some great work with his role as the slacker priest. It’s strange watching him in a much better movie where he’s inside a mansion with paranormal spirits than the terrible remake of "The Haunting." Remember that gem of late '90s cinema?
Despite many going into "Haunted Mansion" anticipating a blend of horror and comedy, it is deeper than anyone imagined. One of the biggest surprises about the film was how it dealt with the subject of loss and grief in a movie primarily geared toward kids. And that's true for a few of our characters, who are still dealing with someone who passed away, finding it hard to let everything go and move on to improve our lives, allowing for a few of those emotional moments, especially from Ben, feeling well-earned.
Even the New Orleans setting of the film doesn’t feel too wasted when because once they have funerals, it’s a day of celebration, not mourning. Come for the creepy ghosts; stay for the heart.
As it went along, though, it started on a solid note, only to falter in the latter half. Most of that is from the plot feeling scattered in not knowing which character to focus on, whether or not they are inside the house. Because of this, there were some noticeable pacing problems in the middle, and the comic element quickly turned out to be hit-or-miss. While some jokes left me completely mute (any random production placement plug), some genuine laughs first got me.
Then when it reaches the third act, the climax becomes somewhat underwhelming when it’s a typical CGI-fest that wasn’t as exciting as it could’ve been, feeling as if this would be better if it were about 15 minutes shorter.
But whether it was worth the trip, releasing this during the summer instead of around Halloween time doesn’t seem like the most brilliant move from Disney, especially around the current state of the strike. I have a feeling this won't make so much sense considering the heavy competition that provided a big draw from audiences at the box office ("Barbie" and "Oppenheimer"). Not only that, it seems they're repeating history since we all know what happened to the cult classic "Hocus Pocus," right?
Overall, “Haunted Mansion" will appeal more to fans of the Disney ride. It’s no magnum opus but it is more watchable than the original. For parents who want a gateway to introduce their children to family-friendly horror, there are better options out there, but this could be something to their liking (“Casper,” “Goosebumps,” etc.) It has some scares and a likable ensemble, with LaKeith Stanfield outshining everyone. But the cracks unfold from a few jokes falling flat and a story that loses its way later. Other than that, it's an enjoyable time for a matinee.