Synopsis: A single mother and her son move into a New Orleans mansion, only to find that it isn’t quite as empty as expected. To combat the spirits, they hire a grieving widower who works as a ghost tour guide, a psychic, a priest, and a local historian to exorcise the spirits from the Haunted Mansion.
Stars: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Dan Levy, Winona Ryder, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto
Director: Justin Simien
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Spend enough time at one of the Disney theme parks worldwide, and you’ll hear the words “rope drop” murmured around your resort hotel by experienced guests who know the drill. Rope drop is the time of day when the park opens, the free for all moment that separates the runners from the walkers, the Space Mountain rocketeers from the Jungle Cruise captains. If you want to go on the Peter Pan ride and not wait hours, you better make a beeline for the queue, or good luck standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a noisy family from Kentucky.
Everyone has their favorite rope drop ride (often the most in-demand attraction), but if I manage to drag myself out of those comfy Disney beds early enough, I know which ride at Walt Disney World will always be my first choice of the day: The Haunted Mansion. A classic Disney “dark” ride that is a fantastic blend of skilled animatronics, Imagineering magic, and good old-fashioned bold design, I’ve traveled through the attraction dozens and dozens of times (sometimes on the same trip) and always found something new to enjoy.
That’s why Disney’s first stab at making a Haunted Mansion movie in 2003 was a bummer. Starring Eddie Murphy in one of his phoned-in, for-cash-only performances, it had a silly plot, goofy effects, and ultimately failed to capitalize on the same inspired spirit which made Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl a gigantic hit a few months prior. Despite rumors that Guillermo del Toro was interested in re-opening the franchise a decade ago, the property toiled around in limbo until it was revived shortly after the pandemic restrictions lifted.
Directed by Justin Simien (Hulu’s Bad Hair) and written by Katie Dippold (The Heat and 2016’s Ghostbusters), I had hoped a rebuilt Haunted Mansion would repair the shoddy work done by the original, but alas, it’s still creaky and moldy in all the wrong places. Not quite the wild ride I’d imagined, Disney’s 2023 take on Haunted Mansion is a weird misfire that has the right actors for the job but can never decide if it wants to be a mellow and melancholy tale of lost love and moving on or the effects-heavy romp of ghoulish delights it only doles out in small doses over two hours (yes, two hours).
There’s a sense the film is off track from the start, with visits to New Orleans locales playing more like an ad for Louisiana tourism than a mood-setting introduction. Keeping things at a forward narrative standstill as we wait for the titles to appear, we witness photographer Ben (LaKeith Stanfield, Knives Out) meet Alyssa (Charity Jordan, Respect) and learn she gives ghost tours before jumping ahead a handful of years to find Ben a grieving widower that has taken over his wife’s business. Rather than being an inviting way into the story, it’s an awkward, roundabout way of establishing our leading man and how he comes to the attention of Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Paint).
Hired by single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, The Water Man), who is having trouble with the new home she purchased for her and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon, The Harder They Fall), Kent is desperate for an extra set of hands to identify what forces are disturbing the peace of the single mother and child. He’s heard that Ben may be an expert on the supernatural and uses a hefty cash donation as an enticement to take a look at the place. The only problem is that once you enter the Haunted Mansion, you can’t shake the ghosts that inhabit it. Therefore, it greatly behooves Ben, Kent, mystic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish, Girls Trip), and a local historian (Danny DeVito, Dumbo), who join forces to unlock the secrets of the manor and find out what evil is controlling the grim-grinning ghosts that have come out to wreak havoc.
The 2003 release of Haunted Mansion was rated PG and accessible for families and youngsters that didn’t mind the light spookiness. Twenty years later, however, we find the reboot netting a PG-13 and often deserving it. It’s more than a little scary and not for little ones. I’d argue they’ll be more inclined to wriggle in their seats of boredom more than it will freak them out, and at over two hours, the studio has seriously miscalculated how much movie they needed to produce. Dippold’s script can never commit to being geared toward a more adult drama with gothic overtones or maintain the fun zip of the ride that I’m pretty sure most fans wanted. There’s fan service paid, and it’s chiefly in Jared Leto’s (House of Gucci) #1 bad guy, the infamous Hat-Box Ghost, but you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s Leto under the (well-done) CGI created ghoul because he’s barely seen in human form.
What kept tripping me up was how odd it was that so many good actors were in a movie that was consistently mediocre and off the mark. Take Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween Ends), playing the famous psychic Madame Leota. Curtis is decked out in fab costumes in flashbacks, but Madame Leota is most known for being an all-knowing head in a crystal ball, and she’s rendered via arguably terrible CGI in her globe. Couple that with a questionable accent (and even more questionably applied CGI lipstick), and Curtis’ first post-Oscar work is a big dud. The ray of light is Stanfield, terrific throughout and almost able to salvage the film when it gets lost in one of its oddly maudlin tangents.
Punched up at times through a score by Kris Bowers (The United States vs. Billie Holliday), what’s missing are the raucous effects sequences that would have kept the film’s energy up longer. Some astounding effects scenes work nicely, and Jeffrey Waldron’s cinematography (You Hurt My Feelings) is often tonally on the right track, but you have to wait for long stretches before you get any reward in the light frights department. By that point, the payoff seems less worth it. When you finally check out of the Haunted Mansion, I’m guessing you’ll have more thoughts about the unanswered questions it leaves you with than you did about the secrets it held before going in. I hope Disney can renovate again with a new team more committed to keeping it old-school and resisting the urge to build it modern.