It seems like a very Disney-esque thing to make a film about a theme park ride. 2003 was a big year for films based on rides as both Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean both premiered in the same year. One of these went on to become a huge, franchise-starting success and one went down in history as one of the worst Disney-produced films ever. We’ll let you decide which was which.
Despite the largely negative reviews for the first Haunted Mansion movie, the ride itself has remained popular, so a reboot was only a matter of time. Justin Simien, best known for Dear White People, is the next brave soul to tackle the spooky-licious theme park attraction.
At the beginning of Haunted Mansion, we meet Gabby (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) arrive at their new, very lavish house. It’s blatantly obvious this place is going to be haunted, but Gabby and Travis get settled in regardless. They’re viciously attacked by the ghosts that inhabit the building and find themselves unable to shake them even if they leave the house.
Gabby enlists the help of Father Kent (Owen Wilson) who in turn seeks out Ben Matthias (Lakeith Stanfield), who has developed a camera that can capture ghosts and spirits. Ben is still very much grieving the loss of his wife and hopes that he can reach her with his camera. They also enlist Danny DeVito’s haunted house specialist Bruce and Tiffany Haddish’s medium, but the house is ruled over by the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), who might just prove too powerful for our team to tackle.
Simien doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel, or in this case, the kids’ film formula, with Haunted Mansion, but there is plenty here to enjoy. Simien directs the film efficiently; the rather long runtime flies by because there is constantly enough happening on screen to keep us watching.
Haunted Mansion rarely offers anything particularly insightful or enjoyable to older viewers, but it should work as a wonderful gateway horror for kids. It introduces them to the concept of feeling scared and thrilled in a safe environment and that alone is hugely important, making Haunted Mansion a valuable asset to many parents. Simien carefully balances the jokes and the scares so that neither cancels the other one out, but occasionally, Haunted Mansion has just too much going on.
The most jarring and grating part of Haunted Mansion is the CGI. There is plenty of it and most ghosts and monstrous creations look weirdly plasticky. Especially horrifying is the CGI head of Oscar-winning actress Jamie Lee Curtis which just floats in a crystal ball. Granted, Haunted Mansion is clearly aimed at a very young audience and there’s room to be a bit goofy with the visuals, but the film lacks finesse at times.
Thankfully, Simien has assembled a very talented cast for his film. Lakeith Stanfield, an unpredictable, exciting performer, makes for a very engaging lead. He sells the heck out of a monologue where he finally lets his new friends know why he can’t let go of his wife’s tragic death and, reader, I teared up.
Danny DeVito, Tiffany Haddish and Owen Wilson are all allowed to be funny, but not quite hilarious. While Simien devotes a lot of time and care to exploring the budding friendship between Travis and Ben, Gabby’s character feels neglected.
Kate Dippold’s script seems to hold back, perhaps to remain family friendly, but it comes at a cost. Haunted Mansion is constantly on the verge of being great, but a more raucous script and a more outrageous approach might have pushed the film past that and into truly memorable territory.
Haunted Mansion is in UK cinemas 11 August.