Movie Review: Haunted Mansion
Twenty years ago, Eddie Murphy tried to thread the needle on a funny-but-scary Haunted Mansion movie.
Now, Disney has tried again with a second take on the beloved Disney attraction. Once again, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.
Here’s a lukewarm review of Haunted Mansion, a movie that only Disney diehards will consider a classic.
About Haunted Mansion
By now, most Disney fans know the story regarding the creation of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland.
Imagineers spent 15 years arguing back and forth about the attraction’s tone. Should it veer toward funny or scary?
Ultimately, Disney perfectly split the difference, which explains why a Doom Buggy ride on Haunted Mansion has evolved into a rite of passage.
The New Orleans Square attraction offers someone for everyone. It’s a swinging wake!
In 2003, that same psychological struggle torpedoed Eddie Murphy’s take on Haunted Mansion.
As a friend who produced the film once told me, nobody at Disney could quite settle on the proper tone. So, it failed to find the ideal balance.
In 2023, directorial wunderkind Justin Simien of Bad Hair and Dear White People has taken a big swing.
In a way, Simien appears perfect for the gig in that Bad Hair was a horror film, while Dear White People is a satirical comedy-drama.
When you mash those two ideas together, you should get something ideal for a Haunted Mansion movie.
Disney fans are all-too-familiar with this balance, as it was the same struggle we witnessed in some Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.
Building an entire film around ideas from a theme park attraction isn’t easy. If it were, Disney wouldn’t be batting 1 for 3 with its attempts.
Remember the time Disney made a movie based on Country Bear Jamboree? No? I rest my case.
Deciding what to take from an attraction and what to ignore requires a unique level of intuition and storytelling feel.
I fully believe that Simien possesses these traits, but it doesn’t quite translate in Haunted Mansion. You can’t blame the cast, though…
The Haunted Mansion Players
Here’s the best news I can give you about the film. Disney legitimately couldn’t have cast anyone better in Haunted Mansion. Everyone delivers!
That statement starts at the top with LaKeith Stanfield, whom nature blessed with the superstar gene.
In fact, I can pinpoint the moment I fell in love with him permanently. It’s in this clip (warning: one f-bomb):
None of this dialogue would work in the hands of lesser talents.
Stanfield’s inflection, enunciation, and mannerisms elevate it into something unforgettable.
I’d seen the actor several times previously, but that scene was his defining moment for me.
That deft touch is on display throughout Haunted Mansion, as Stanfield portrays Ben Matthias, a certified super-genius dealing with loss.
I’m not joking when I say that Stanfield carries the same kind of swagger that Johnny Depp offered in the first two Pirates of the Caribbean movies.
I honestly wish Stanfield had been the beneficiary of a better script, as the actor delivers on everything the story asks of him.
Similarly, Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito excel as a clergyman and a New Orleans historian.
Both men happily embrace their roles as comic relief, and their decades of experience shine through in this regard.
As my date said, Haunted Mansion is exceptionally funny when it wants to be. It just doesn’t choose comedy often enough.
Rosario Dawson’s character, Gabbie, ostensibly ties the story together, but she’s arguably not even in it as much as the child actor playing her son.
Similarly, other beloved performers like Tiffany Haddish and Jamie Lee Curtis don’t appear until deeper in the film.
Everyone is great, but most of these roles are underwritten.
The Pros of Haunted Mansion
I’ve sounded somewhat negative thus far, and I’m going to walk that back a bit now.
I quite enjoyed the film. I’d describe it in baseball terms as a solid single, maybe even a double, depending on my mood.
This story is objectively a love letter to Haunted Mansion, the attraction, a ride I happen to adore.
So, I understood many of the references that the film makes, something I fear won’t be true of mainstream audiences.
Still, for those of us who decorate our homes with Haunted Mansion merchandise, the various sets and Easter eggs are likely to cause euphoria.
I mean it when I say that Justin Simien might love Haunted Mansion the way that my wife does…and she has an entire bookshelf full of The Bride merch!
Speaking of which, the exterior of the Haunted Mansion will have fans leaping with joy. The visuals of the film embrace the ride’s gothic mystique.
While the film doesn’t beat the viewer over the head with special effects, the ones we get feel believable and perfectly in keeping with the ride’s vibe.
Also, I cannot emphasize enough how terrific Stanfield is in this film. When he laughs, you’ll laugh with him. And when he cries, you’ll feel it.
Speaking of laughter, I did it a lot during the film. Sure, I’m the target audience for a Haunted Mansion movie, but it’s a ton of fun at times.
I totally got my money’s worth seeing this one in a theater due to the humor and Stanfield’s performance.
The Cons of Haunted Mansion
Let’s start with the fact that this film starts as a mystery. The guests at Haunted Mansion are trying to uncover the truth about late-night frights.
Since the viewer knows that the house is actually haunted, parts of the story feel like a slog to get to the good part.
Not coincidentally, the villain of the story appears too late to make much of an impact.
That’s infuriating since I loooooove this character in particular.
They might be my favorite among the 999 Happy Haunts, and they deserved better treatment here.
A more general criticism I have is that I kind of just watched this story a couple of years ago.
Muppets Haunted Mansion, a Disney+ special, covered much of the same territory. It was a loving tribute with a much tighter script.
That thought crept into my mind a couple of times during the slower parts of Haunted Mansion.
The sloppy editing didn’t help any, either. On at least three occasions, I could tell that Simien had pulled out a line of dialogue (or more) to save the scene.
Casual movie-goers may not notice, but it took me out of the scene each time, especially one at the end of the film.
Finally, I feel compelled to complain about the product placement in this film.
There are moments involving a Yankee Candle and a Burger King meal that are frankly cheap, out of place, and unbecoming of a major studio release.
Disney has had a strange summer box office campaign. It has released five titles thus far.
Those are Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, The Little Mermaid, Elemental, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and now Haunted Mansion.
I like Haunted Mansion the least of the five, which isn’t even a dig at this film. Instead, it reinforces the fact that Disney has released good movies lately.
However, Haunted Mansion feels more like a “what might have been” than a “that’s exactly what I wanted!”
Speaking as a Haunted Mansion superfan, I would give the film a seven out of ten that I wish were a ten out of ten.
Those of you who aren’t as passionate about the ride can probably wait until Haunted Mansion is available on Disney+, though.
The film’s vibe might work better in October than it did in July.
In short, I wanted to love Haunted Mansion, but I “only” liked it instead.
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Feature Photo: Disney