Haunted Mansion Review: Disney Tries to Break Theme Park Ride Movie Curse


Disney’s interest in making films based on its theme park attractions stretches back to 1997 and the now-forgotten Wonderful World of Disney TV movie, Tower of Terror. Since then offerings like Jungle Cruise, Tomorrowland, and of course the one time it worked, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, have all made it to the screen with varying degrees of success. And with each outing, filmmakers have tried to impose traditional narratives on experiences that are more sensory and immersive than story-driven.

Still, one of the most enduring attractions at many of the Disney parks, the Haunted Mansion, would seem to be a natural for a cinematic adaptation. However, the first attempt in 2003, which starred Eddie Murphy and directed by Rob Minkoff, was a critical disaster and only a tepid box office performer (it’s since gotten somewhat of a reassessment). Still, Disney is always one to try and try again. So now, almost 20 years to the day, director Justin Simien (Dear White People) has at last delivered another attempt at Haunted Mansion, this one written by Katie Dippold (2016’s Ghostbusters) and starring LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, and Danny DeVito.

Since haunted houses are already such a staple of genre storytelling, a Haunted Mansion movie would seem like more or less a blank canvas in terms of what kind of tale Simien and Dippold were interested in spinning, yet the result is in many ways a generic Disney movie: There are scares that can work for kids and parents (except perhaps for the really little ones), mysteries and puzzles to solve, plenty of Easter eggs for the ride itself, and a story that is ultimately heartwarming and family-friendly. It’s also fairly shallow.

The film opens in a New Orleans bar, where Ben (Stanfield), an astrophysicist, meets his future wife. Cut to some years later, however, and said spouse is already dead. Ben has given up his career to become a paranormal tour guide in the hope that he might find some way to contact her. Instead he’s approached by a priest named Kent (Wilson) to help single mom Gabbie (Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), who have just moved into a vast, decrepit mansion outside of town that turns out to be full of ghosts. Ben

Ben reluctantly agrees to help for a price, but will soon learn the larger problem is that once you enter the house, the ghosts latch onto you and follow you home (just like in the ride), causing havoc in the outside world until you return to the mansion. That’s how a ghostbusting team consisting of Ben, Father Kent, Gabbie and her son, a savvy local psychic (Haddish), and a nutty college professor (DeVito) ends up cohabitating in the house together while trying to solve its enigmas, exorcise its ghosts, and, for some of them, exorcise their grief as well.

Trauma has been used (arguably overused) during these past 10 years or so of horror films, to the point where it’s becoming something of a cliché in recent offerings like The Boogeyman. It’s somewhat surprising to find it here though, especially in a scene where Stanfield’s character finally unburdens himself of the pain he’s been carrying over his wife’s death. It hints at perhaps a deeper film lurking somewhere inside this one.

But this is a Disney movie based on a theme park ride, so things never get too deep. Haunted Mansion is, in the end, a completely innocuous movie in many ways, but utterly forgettable in others. You might have fun watching it, but it disperses into the ether fairly quickly, as evanescent as the 999 CG ghosts (too many of which rattle around in the now-standard digitally-saturated third act), who inhabit what’s known as the Gracey House (named after one of the Imagineers who designed the ride).

The movie harkens back in a big way to the lore established by the ride, and the many callbacks to the ride itself—including a pleasant turn by Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota, the floating head who resides inside a crystal ball—are fun to spot and used well. The cast is also largely game, although Stanfield seems a bit too phlegmatic at first (he gets better), and the energy level noticeably rises a notch or two once the vibrant Haddish enters the scene.

But any true edges that Justin Simien might have brought to the project following his satirical horror outing Bad Hair have been sanded down (another indie-minded filmmaker grinding through the Disney system for a nice payday and future creative leverage), and Dippold’s script, while reasonably constructed, hits all the mostly predictable beats that studio notes probably suggested.

Haunted Mansion is arriving at a strange time. While the summer is not a death knell for scary movies (quite the opposite, in fact), it’s essentially replacing The Marvels, a big MCU/Disney tentpole that has since moved to November, and coming out not only in the midst of the Barbenheimer phenomenon but also a protracted strike by both actors and writers.

Yet even if that wasn’t the case, we can’t help but think that Haunted Mansion would have gone straight to Disney+ two or three years ago during peak COVID—like another ride-based movie, Jungle Cruise—and would probably do better there even now. The movie is aggressively ‘okay,’ but the Haunted Mansion theme park ride will still be spooking guests long after this movie has become just another obscure streaming option.

Haunted Mansion opens in theaters on Friday, July 28.

The post Haunted Mansion Review: Disney Tries to Break Theme Park Ride Movie Curse appeared first on Den of Geek.

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