20 years ago, Walt Disney Studios made its first attempt at adapting the classic late-1960s theme park attraction The Haunted Mansion into a major motion picture. The movie did just okay at the box office and fell completely flat with critics, failing to capture the magic that the Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise had begun to generate earlier that same year. Now they’ve tried again, and while the new Haunted Mansion effort has its moments, I fear it may be another nail in the proverbial coffin for Disney’s luck with movies lately.
Haunted Mansion (2023)– now lacking a definite article in its title– is the story of a widower named Ben (played by Atlanta’s LaKeith Stanfield) who has abandoned his career as an astrophysicist to become a depressed, bitter New Orleans tour guide in the wake of his wife’s car-accident death. But soon Ben finds himself cajoled by a smooth-talking priest called Father Kent (Owen Wilson, returning to similar territory nearly two-and-a-half decades after his turn in 1999’s The Haunting remake) into investigating the strange goings-on at the titular abode occupied by a single mother named Gabbie (Star Wars: Ahsoka’s Rosario Dawson) and her lonesome son Travis (Chase Dillon from The Underground Railroad TV miniseries)… not to mention 999 happy haunts. They all find themselves plagued by these spirits pretty much immediately upon stepping into the building, which looks just like its Disneyland namesake, and they can’t even leave because, guess what, a ghost will follow them home! The movie has a winning cast and a decent setup, and the source material seems like a no-brainer, so why doesn’t it work? First of all, the rapid-fire editing style leaves no room for establishing any sort of mood or atmosphere, and secondly most of the jokes are misfires– I counted about a half-dozen times the script elicited chuckles from me.
So there are very few scares and ever fewer laughs, which makes this horror/comedy a miss in my book, despite the noble efforts of director Justin Simien (Dear White People), who we learned at D23 Expo last year is a former Disneyland Cast Member. Supporting players include Danny DeVito (Matilda) as a befuddled professor dragged into this mess, Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip) as a confidence-lacking medium, and newly branded Oscar-winner Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween) as Madame Leota, who Disney Parks regulars will recognize as the disembodied head floating in a crystal ball from the attraction. Yeah, much like the Eddie Murphy version, this movie is jam-packed with references to The Haunted Mansion itself, but that doesn’t necessarily make for an entertaining or satisfying two hours in the theater. Instead, Haunted Mansion limps along, searching for a narrative that makes sense as our heroes go up against the villainous Hatbox Ghost (Morbius’s Jared Leto, almost completely invisible under an altered voice and ghoulish CGI face). I did enjoy a sequence where Stanfield, Wilson, and Dillon must visit another location to retrieve the above-mentioned ghost’s belongings. This part had some good gags, a creepier vibe, and some fun cameos of both the visual and aural kind. I just wish the rest of the movie lived up to its occasional high points.
As a lifelong fan of the attraction, I figure there’s gotta be a way to turn this thing into a successful movie. Sadly I don’t think that has quite happened yet, as much as I was rooting for it this time around. This attempt is too goofy to be eerie and too dumb to be funny, which puts it about on par with the 2003 adaptation, though I remember that one actually having more impressive production design, so maybe it was even better? That’s a weird thing to say, I know, but I can’t see myself wanting to revisit either film to make sure. Instead, I’ll look forward to going on the ride again… or heck, even firing up Disney+ to enjoy Muppets Haunted Mansion another few times when Halloween season comes around. That one is only the length of a TV special, but I felt like it captured the spirit and inspired silliness of the two franchises it mashed together better than any theatrical offering has for our favorite ghostly retreat.
Haunted Mansion opens this Friday, July 28th, in theaters nationwide.
My grade: 2 out of 5 top hats