‘Haunted Mansion’ Is Family-Friendly to a Fault
Jul 28, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
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Jul 28, 2023   •   Mikhail Lecaros
Haunted Mansion is an adaptation of the popular Disney theme park attraction of the same name. Directed by Justin Simien (Dear White People), this is the third attempt to adapt the ride, following the poorly received 2003 Eddie Murphy-starrer, and 2021’s enjoyably irreverent Muppet Haunted Mansion on Disney+.
Following the success of 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean, it was assumed that the (then-)upcoming Eddie Murphy-starring Haunted Mansion film would be similarly well-received. With Haunted Mansion being (and remaining) one of Disneyland’s most iconic attractions since being introduced to the park in 1959, and Murphy well into the “family-friendly” phase of his career, the expectations were somewhat justified.
Unfortunately, the 2003 film was pretty much forgettable, and it wouldn’t be until 2021’s gleefully absurd Muppet Haunted Mansion on Disney+ that the ride’s supernatural blend of horror and humor would be fully embraced.
So how does the 2023 version stack up?
When a personal tragedy ends Ben’s (LaKeith Stanfield, Straight Outta Compton) career as an astrophysicist, he ekes out a living as a walking tour guide. His tourist-herding routine is disrupted when he’s called on by Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Wedding Crashers, The Internship) to assist Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, Rent, Ahsoka) and her young son (Chase W. Dillon) in ridding their new home of ghosts. With the additional help of a psychic (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip) and a history expert (Danny DeVito, Batman Returns, TV’s It’s Always Sunny), the group will uncover the terrifying secret of the haunted mansion.
Conceived in 2010 as a Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) production, Haunted Mansion went through a number of rewrites, filmmakers, and actors (including Barbie’s Ryan Gosling) before arriving at the version that hit cinemas yesterday. The end result is a movie that serves family entertainment and nods to the titular ride, but precious little by way of scares.
While this was never going to be a horror film per se, Del Toro’s previous involvement implied that it wouldn’t skimp on the scare factor. Even the 2003 version had a couple of decent jump scares; twenty years later, the nightmare fuel’s been sanitized to the point of non-existence, replaced by half-hearted gags and largely generic CGI.
It’s a shame that the movie plays things so safe; the Easter eggs and references are fantastic, and one can’t help but imagine how much more effective they’d be in the hands of a seasoned genre director like Del Toro or Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Multiverse of Madness). Owen Wilson’s fast-talking priest is nothing we haven’t seen before, and even Rosario Dawson’s role as the only sane (yet likeable) person in the room when things go crazy is one she can do in her sleep by this point. Haddish and DeVito likewise draw from their back catalogues in playing a street-smart wise aleck and an egotistical jerk, respectively, albeit versions where all the edges have been filed down.
Surprisingly, the film succeeds in giving Ben an emotional arc that allows us to invest in his character. After all, who hasn’t wished they could have one last conversation with a loved one? Stanfield may be in second gear for the majority of the film, but he turns on the acting chops whenever the topic turns to Ben’s dearly-departed Alyssa, selling the emotion that our heroes rely on to save the day.
Oppenheimer stunned audiences with its use of A-list actors (and Josh Peck) to populate its recreation of World War II America, but Haunted Mansion chooses to use its superstars in the most inconsequential ways possible. Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween, Freaky Friday) does what she can as iconic Disney mystic Madame Leota (previously played by the likes of Jennifer Tilly and Miss Piggy), but her presence here amounts to little more than a glorified cameo. The same applies to a certain member of the Stranger Things cast whose appearance serves no function here other than facial recognition in the presumed audience.
Perhaps the most perplexing use of a big-name star is Morbius and Blade Runner 2049’s Jared Leto as the villainous Hatbox Ghost. A malevolent spirit intent on collecting the final soul he needs to unleash hell on the world, The Hatbox Ghost is a constant threat to our heroes and, on paper, should be a lot more entertaining than he’s made out to be. While the poster and film tell us it’s the 30 Seconds From Mars frontman, it could have been literally anybody, as we never actually see his face, and the distortion effect they’ve applied to his voice renders the actor completely unrecognizable.
Skewing closer to caution than anything approaching the original ride’s level of creepy kookiness, the newest Haunted Mansion adaptation does little that will stick in the memory, but it should make for a good afternoon time-filler once it hits Disney+, where audiences will be able to stream the version they like best (our money’s still on the Muppets).
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