'Haunted Mansion' review: Disney reboot is a cheap expansion of beloved attraction
Courtesy of Disney
I know what you’re thinking: Why is the 2023 Disney reboot of “Haunted Mansion” coming out in July? Like most of the movie, which is twenty years removed from when Eddie Murphy headlined his own take on the classic attraction, it simply doesn’t make that much sense. Featuring a mega wattage cast of Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, LaKetith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, and, uh, Jared Leto as something called the Hatbox ghost, “Haunted Mansion” lacks the spirit and ingenuity of the ride it’s based on through it occasionally finds rhythm thanks to an ensemble of likable faces. The production design also has spark, but this is still another case of Disney pouring $150 million bucks into a movie where the climax is one CGI snooze fest. (The only way a “Haunted Mansion” movie should cost $150 million dollars is if James Cameron is directing it). It’s all the more embarrassing when two major films, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” were made for less money and looked ten times more authentic. If this had come out in October, maybe some of these blemishes could’ve been forgiven.
Except no amount of distance from two genuine blockbusters could salvage “Haunted Mansion,” which is a disjointed exercise in milking tired IP. The 2003 version, while not a major money maker, released at a time when CGI wasn’t so dominant and it allowed Murphy comedic freedom to interact with the scenery, producing a semi-decent physical performance. In 2023, there are several instances where Stanfield clearly doesn’t know which direction he should be looking as digitized creatures and ghouls roam on the screen. Leto, playing the film’s primary antagonist, is another weird decision considering the character’s voice is heavily altered and its face is animated. There was zero reason Disney needed to fork over what I assume was a decent sum to secure the Oscar winner’s involvement. At least Jamie Lee Curits, looking bored as ever, probably made bank having her head CGI’d into a crystal ball.
As for the story, there are decent breadcrumbs screenwriter Katie Dippold deploys as she tries expanding what’s a less than 10-minute excursion at Disney World into a bloated two hour action-adventure. It follows Ben (Stanfield), who, in the early moments of the film, meets a woman who will obviously become his wife. But after she dies in a car accident, it sends him into a drunken downfall working as a tour guide of various haunted sites throughout New Orleans. These early scenes suggest “Haunted Mansion” might focus on exploring the complex emotional dynamics of someone who is still grieving the loss of a loved one, but that’s before the movie kicks into gear and sees Owen Wilson’s Father Kent knocking at the door asking if Ben wants to help cleanse a single mom’s (Dawson) mansion that’s supposedly riddled with pesky ghosts and/or demons.
Along for the exorcism is a shady medium played by Tiffany Haddish, Chase Dillion as Dawson’s young child who, of course, will form a bond with Ben; and then there’s Danny DeVito’s eccentric college professor Bruce Davis, one of the sole bright spots of the film who manages to evoke legitimate laughs as he rounds out the paranormal brigade. Their primary objective is to expel upwards of 999 ghosts who are freeloading in the mansion alongside the villainous Hatbox ghoul, which is again played by Jared Leto, but you wouldn’t know it unless you saw the credits.
All these performers are fine and seem acutely aware they’re involved in a film that will be forgotten the moment it’s over. But running over the two hour mark on a script with thin story beats rather than strong narrative fusion makes it a herculean task for even the most gifted of performers to elevate. Poor Stanfield tries on several occasions to invoke a rousing emotional performance, but you can tell he’s over the material. And poor Justin Simien, best known for directing solid indies “Dear White People” and “Bad Hair,” has become the latest filmmaker to be swallowed by the massive Disney franchise machine.
Now that’s scary.
HAUNTED MANSION opens in theaters nationwide Friday, July 28th.