Let me start off by saying that I have no attachment to Disney’s Haunted Mansion franchise whatsoever. I have not seen the original movie, I have not seen the Muppets special, and I have not been on the Disneyland ride. In fact, the closest I ever got to caring about the IP was when I found out that Guillermo del Toro was apparently working on an animated adaption at one point. All of this is to say that I have no point of comparison with previous iterations of the Haunted Mansion, and if there were any easter eggs or references for fans, which given that it’s a Disney movie in the year 2023 is pretty much guaranteed, they either went straight over my head or simply didn’t mean anything to me. What did draw me to seeing this in the theater, however, apart from me having already seen the big hitters of the month in Oppenheimer, Barbie, and the seemingly already forgotten Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, was the stacked cast and the promising director at the helm of it.
I think it would be fair to call Justin Simien an afro-surrealist filmmaker, at least based on his limited body of work so far. Establishing himself with the Netflix show Dear White People, based on his feature debut of the same title for which he won multiple awards, including two Indie Spirit Awards and a Special Jury Award at Sundance, he then went on to direct the horror movie Bad Hair in 2020, with which he once again sought to explore the black experience. All of this brings us into the current moment in which a new Haunted Mansion adaptation is released by Disney, and as with most cases of promising indie darling turning Disney, most of that unique identity is lost. It’s probably fair to assume that part of this is just given the fact that he didn’t write the screenplay for Haunted Mansion himself, unlike his previous directorial efforts, but it’s also just an all too common pattern in the big mouses’ apparatus.
Pretty early on in the story, conjured up by screenwriter Katie Dippold, is a scene reminiscent of classic heist movies, in which a team of faux experts is assembled to solve the mystery of this oh so haunted mansion. There is Ben Matthias (Lakeith Stanfield), a disgraced astrophysicist turned tour guide who invented a special lens allowing him to capture ghosts on camera, Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest that doesn’t behave like your usual priest who’s supposed to exorcise the mansion, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a medium that can hopefully contact the ghosts in the house to help them figure out what’s going on, Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), a history professor of a nearby college that might know a thing or two about the history of the mansion, and of course Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) who are the new owners of the mansion. As you can tell, the cast is filled with recognizable faces, and those aren’t even all. Jamie Lee Curtis, and yes, also Jared Leto, round out the main cast.
But fear not, if it weren’t for the ominous announcement of his casting in the opening credits, you would never know he’s even in the movie, as he plays the main villain, an entirely CG ghoul. The opposite is true for the rest of the cast. They make their presence well known and carry large parts of the movie with their expected charm. Lakeith Stanfield, in particular, proves once again that he’s capable of elevating whatever material you put in front of him. But overall, you’ve got a group of naturally funny people here that will deliver even the lackluster jokes to some light laughs. And a movie like this needs those kinds of people as not every joke here is a hit, but this shouldn’t distract from the fact that a fair number of them absolutely are.
So, once this group of talented people is assembled, it’s all about the spooky hijinks and ghostly shenanigans that our cast of characters has to deal with. These deliver some solid fun and make for a couple of exciting set pieces. The scare factor is at an appropriate level, so it isn’t too scary for children, but still enough to deserve that ‘haunted’ in the title. Think Goosebumps and, I imagine, previous versions of Haunted Mansion. Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot new here, but it nevertheless makes for an enjoyable ride, and what more could you really want from a movie based on a theme park attraction.
The movie clearly wants to be this exploration of grief. What else would a ghost movie be about after all, and surprisingly, there are times where it works. There’s this relationship in Haunted Mansion between Lakeith Stanfield’s character and the little kid, and it kind of works. Both of them mirror each other in many ways; they’re used to being lonely, they’re not very sociable, and maybe most importantly, they’re both dealing with grief. When it’s just the two of them and they have their little interactions with each other, the movie can slow down for a second and let its themes of grief and self-doubt breathe. Themes that are present in almost all of the characters, all of which have their small moments where they shine through for a second or two, there simply isn’t enough of that though. And as with most Disney blockbusters in recent history, once we arrive at the last third, it wants to be a spectacle more than anything else and loses focus on everything else.
However, there is this one scene in the latter half of the movie, that kicks off the final act, where the movie becomes the best version of what it could be for a second. It’s ironically an entirely expository scene – not what you would usually consider the peak of a movie – but here the movie has an energy other moments can only aspire to. It’s a short animated sequence that’s a joy to watch, and Kris Bowers’ score gets to take the spotlight here for a second when it’s rather subdued for most of the rest of the movie. It’s this moment, as well as the avengers assemble moment I mentioned earlier, where Haunted Mansion almost feels like a heist movie for a bit and I think had the movie leaned into that more, this could’ve been something really exciting.
As is, the movie still manages to be a rather fun time, which is more than I was expecting. Disney’s filmography was once a shining palace filled with a hall of greats, but it’s slowly turning into an abandoned building filled with the empty husks of franchises that should’ve died a long time ago. Haunted Mansion could’ve been another ghost forced to tirelessly wander cinema screens all over the world until we all wish it would finally move on, like so many of Disney’s recent live-action output. Instead, we got a new fun, if derivative, spooky family adventure film.
This isn’t the next Pirates of the Caribbean and it won’t be a massive hit – how could it considering it’s a Halloween movie released in the middle of summer a week after Barbenheimer – but I have to say, this is the first time in a while that I’ve felt a bit of that classic Disney magic again. And if 12-year-old me had seen this, I think he would have had a great time with it. Once this lands on Disney+ and October comes rolling around, I think you should really consider giving this one a watch with the family.