Haunted Mansion (PG-13) ★★

Review Date: July 28th, 2023

Back in the early 2000s, Walt Disney Pictures, operating from the motive of strip-mining every conceivable asset in the quest for cash, decided to make movies based on its two most recognizable theme park rides: "The Pirates of the Caribbean" and "The Haunted Mansion." Both films were in simultaneous production and were released within a half-year one another (Pirates in July 2003; Mansion at Thanksgiving 2003). Their fates, however, couldn't have been more different. Pirates was loved by critics and became a major box office success, spawning a full-blown motion picture franchise built around the star, Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow. Haunted Mansion, on the other hand, received little love from either the critics or the general public, which mostly ignored the Eddie Murphy family-friendly vehicle.

In 2010, Disney decided that a reboot/reimagination was in order and brought Gillermo del Toro to supervise the new version. It ran into difficulties, leading to de Toro's departure. After that, Haunted Mansion landed in development hell, where it resided until 2020 when director Justin Simien (Dear White People) and screenwriter Katie Dippold (the "all female" Ghostbusters reboot) came to the rescue. The resulting film is disappointingly bland and uninspired. There's plenty of fan service with the aesthetic and designs being lifted directly from the ride, but little that's motion picture-worthy. The scares are never scary and the humor is only sporadically funny. If the target demographic is young kids (in the age 5-10 range), there may be some appeal. Older viewers, however, will likely find the proceedings to be juvenile and the alleged "emotional" moments are mawkish and artificial.

Narratively, there's not much to the movie. A single mother, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), and her precocious son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), move in to the decrepit Gracey Manor with the hope of restoring it and making it a home. After discovering that it is haunted, Gabbie consults a team of "ghost busters" - New Orleans tour guide Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and history expert Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) - who determine that the 999 harmless spirits inhabiting Gracey Manor are being terrorized by the evil Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto). In order to free the mansion from its curse, the Hatbox Ghost must be defeated.

Haunted Mansion suffers from many of the pitfalls that bedeviled its predecessor even though the storyline has been completely re-invented. One of the reasons why Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl worked is because it used the theme ride for inspiration but didn't try to build a tale around the specifics. Haunted Mansion shows none of that "out of the box" thinking, instead providing a generic haunted house movie without even an obligatory jump-scare to be found.

In 2003, I wrote the following passage about the first Haunted Mansion movie, and it's as appropriate for this remake as it was for the original: "The lack of creativity evident in this project is disappointing, but not surprising. All of the key elements of the theme park ride are present.., but they are jumbled together with little form and less purpose. Any good ghost story, whether humorous or not, needs to have a palpable sense of atmosphere, and The Haunted Mansion has none." The special effects are unimpressive and the Hatbox Ghost is lackluster (largely, one assumes, because the filmmakers were afraid to make him too gruesome lest he traumatize the core audience). The actors are adequate but somehow the combined comedic talents of Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, and Danny DeVito fail to do more than generate a few spirited chuckles. The understated chemistry between Rosario Dawson and LaKieth Standfield goes for naught.

If Haunted Mansion Redux fails, one wonders whether Disney will try again. There seems to be an ingrained belief that the popularity of the ride must somehow equate to a monster box office hit. Time will tell but this Haunted Mansion seems likely to be on the fast track to Disney+, which is where something of its middling entertainment value belongs. It's not a bad movie but it is too long and lifeless for what amounts to a two-hour commercial for a three-minute ride. Even the wait time to get into one of the moving chairs doesn't take as long as watching the film.

© 2023 James Berardinelli