By Josh Reilly B. & George Bate
In the late 1960s, imagineers at Disneyland in Anaheim, California had an idea to create a spooky ghost-themed dark ride attraction that was set at a purpose built run-down mansion. Walt Disney himself was extremely hesitant to green light the project, particularly as he didn’t want any part of his theme park to appear run-down, as was intended for the mansion. The ride was eventually created and flash forward 54 years and Haunted Mansion is firmly one of most popular rides across all Disney parks.
The latest in the string of Disney theme park rides into theatrical movies, Haunted Mansion comes to theaters 20 years after Disney’s first attempt at making this movie. Languishing in development hell and even being written by Guillermo del Toro at one point, this second iteration of Haunted Mansion took a while to come to fruition. So, is the new film worth the wait? Sort of. Is it a worthy adaptation of the iconic ride? Definitely.
Haunted Mansion comes from director Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) and features an ensemble cast, including LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, and Danny DeVito. Stanfield plays Ben, a former astrophysicist turned tour guide, who is hired to look into paranormal activity plaguing a mansion recently bought by single mother Gabbie (played by Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (played by Chase W. Dillon). They quickly learn that the house is haunted (no surprise there), and despite leaving the property, the ghosts keep dragging them back. Now, Gabbie, Ben, and an assembly of others, including a priest, a psychic, and a college history professor, team up to investigate the mansion and banish the ghosts.
The 2023 reimagining of Haunted Mansion markedly departs from the Eddie Murphy-led version from two decades ago. Director Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold choose to go in a completely different direction with the plot of their film as they utilize a cavalcade of characters rather than focusing on a small, close-knit family. This ends up being a solid decision as the characters are the heart and highlights of this film. There’s special attention paid to the heroes at the center of this story with characters who feel complex and real, far more so than characters in many other big-budget family releases. Every character has a genuine background and arc, and the audience gets to know them on a much deeper level than expected for a Disney family film. This is most evident with LaKeith Stanfield’s character, Ben, who recently lost his wife and is overcome with grief, which makes him vulnerable to the ultimate villain, the Hat Box ghost. Rosario Dawson, who will star in Ahsoka on Disney+ next month, also has a touching story as a widow who just wants to do right by her son.
This film plays heavily into the comedic aspects of the story, particularly when Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito are on screen. Wilson and DeVito are easily the two standouts of the ensemble cast, injecting much needed energy and charisma into the proceedings. DeVito in particular shines as an aging college professor who has an obsession with the paranormal, and is quite literally willing to do anything to get involved in the action. Even though DeVito and Wilson’s characters aren’t given the substantive emotional backstory as the likes of Ben and Gabbie, DeVito, there’s some satisfying growth for the heroes come the end of the film.
The evil that these characters are attempting to banish from the mansion is led by the Hatbox Ghost, voiced by Jared Leto in the film. The story itself is not as strong as the 2003 version of the film, which had a more focused and engaging plot related to the house owner’s quest to find his long lost wife once again. This time around, there’s some noticeable pacing issues when it comes to the delivery of the story. At times, it feels as if things are dragging and no new developments are being made, but then a whole host of exposition is suddenly dumped on the audience to progress the story further. While the story (and the villain, who is excellently designed and brings some genuine scares throughout) is interesting enough, the narrative could have been told in a far more succinct and thoughtful manner.
Humor is only one side of the coin for Haunted Mansion, however, as the jokes run parallel to thrills and chills. Relatedly, one aspect of the 2003 film that this new Haunted Mansion lacks almost entirely is its atmosphere. It’s difficult to ever get a full understanding of the mansion or its layout, and only a few rooms are shown. Much of the film is spent in just a few locations inside the house, which is a shame as the scale and spookiness of the mansion is never really explored. While the Hat Box ghost is arguably creepier than anything in the original Eddie Murphy movie, everything around him falls a little too flat at times. In this sense, the new Haunted Mansion excels with its humor, but stumbles with its horror.
The new film has a commitment to paying homage to the original ride, which is sure to be a positive for fans of Disney Parks. The mansion is more aesthetically similar to the ride, particularly the dark hallways and the growing room that exists as part of the interactive wait for the attraction. There’s also some chairs that take the spotlight in a comedic sequence that are designed almost exactly like the Doom Buggies that guests are on during the ride. The attention to detail is nice to see, and adds to the sense that real care and effort when into conceptualizing this reboot.
Disney’s Haunted Mansion reboot is a fun, spooky Amblin-esque horror type film that heavily embraces the ride that it is based on. The characters are the standouts throughout, particularly as they are far more fleshed-out than what is often expected from modern day family features and blockbusters. Unfortunately, while succeeding as a comedy, the film struggles with its spookier elements, especially when compared to its atmospheric predecessor from 2003. In turn, the new Haunted Mansion may stumble at times, as evidenced with some disjointed pacing, but the performances from the ensemble, in particular Stanfield, Wilson, and DeVito, are terrific and are more than enough to make up for the film’s shortcomings.