Disney’s famous theme park attraction provides a great setting for a ghost story. Too bad the script does not provide a great ghost story.
With two decades to learn from their mistakes, it is a sort of reverse-miracle that Walt Disney’s second attempt to turn their The Haunted Mansion ride into a feature film fails to clear the low bar set by its predecessor. If anything, 2023’s Haunted Mansion is even worse than 2003’s The Haunted Mansion. And yes, the new film’s title has been shortened, which forces us to make the obvious joke: Too bad the film itself was not shortened, because its thin storyline has been stretched to a ridiculous length – in excess of two hours. The result is tedious, with an unnecessarily convoluted back story, too many character arcs, and too much time spent away from the titular manse. (To our mind, a film titled Haunted Mansion is wasting time whenever it steps outside the mansion.)
Haunted Mansion 2023 feels like a throwback to Disney’s 1980s era when, in the wake of Star Wars, the studio was attempting to reach young adults while not alienating their core audience of parents with young children, resulting in compromised works such as The Watcher in the Woods – a would-be horror film that was too ominous for little kids but too tame to thrill teens, let alone adults. Haunted Mansion is likewise suspended in limbo: although production design and special effects beautifully capture the appropriate tone – spooky but not too terrifying for young viewers – everything else seems woefully misguided in its efforts to be all things to all people. The result is an unfocused film that appeals to no one.
Things get off to a nice start with physicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) meeting ghost tour guide Alyssa (Charity Jordan) before we flashforward to a now embittered Ben listlessly hosting the tours after Alyssa’s death. If you guessed that this means the skeptical scientist is on a collision course with proof of the afterlife, you’d be right – sort of. That happens, but it is buried under everything else going on in the film, which quickly shifts focus to Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) moving into the Haunted Mansion. Having just set up one character in a prologue to the main action, the film now offers us another preamble to establish to introduce two more characters, and we’re still not into the main story, which doesn’t begin until Ben is hired to investigate the house, which he doesn’t want to do because he doesn’t believe in ghosts, but he does it anyway, and of course he doesn’t see anything (which is supposed to be funny but isn’t), but when he gets home he realizes ghosts have followed him, leading to the inevitably unfunny moment when he announces there are indeed ghosts to characters who already know there are indeed ghosts. So now the movie can start in earnest. Finally.
By the way, Gabbie and Travis have their own problems (an absent father), as does almost everyone else who shows up: Owen Wilson as a priest hired to exorcise the ghosts, Tiffany Haddish as a medium hired to communicate with the spirits, Danny DeVito as a historian who knows the mansion’s haunted history, and Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leoto (the ghostly medium locked in the crystal ball). The film is so determined to hand out subplots that it feels like a a mini-series crammed into a feature film; by the time everyone has sorted out their personal issues, the audience has checked out in boredom, partly because too much is repetitive (Ben and Travis go through the exact same character arc) and partly because everything is too predictable: as hard as he tries to be amusing, Wilson comes off like a con man from his very first scene, and the film does absolutely nothing to convince us otherwise, so the eventual revelation that he is not a priest is literally no surprise at all.
When the climax finally rolls around, the film is so desperate to give everyone something to do that it jumps around there and there without building any tension. Things are hardly helped by the tired plot contrivances: the haunting has an arbitrary set of rules that the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) must follow to achieve his goals, but of course no one bothers to ask who makes or enforces these rules (surely, that a question Wilson’s character should have asked).
After some brief creepiness during the first night Gabbie and Travis spend in the Haunted Masnion, the rest of the film is too silly to be scary. Not that it had to be traumatizing, but the lack of legitimate frights means that the comedy relief has nothing to relieve; jokes that should break the tension fall flat because there is no tension to break. Especially disappointing is the Hatbox Ghost, mostly because his cartoony depiction is nowhere near as creepy as Leto could have been if the movie had allowed him to play the part as an actor instead of simply supplying the voice for a CGI creation. We deserved a villain on par with David Warner’s Evil Genius in Time Bandits; instead, we got a boogey man with no boo in him.
In the end, new Haunted Mansion fails for much the same reason as the old film did: the Disneyland theme park attraction on which they are based offers a great setting for a haunted house movie; unfortunately, the screenwriters failed to invent a ghost story worthy of the location.
Disney's Haunted Mansion (2023)
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Disney’s latest attempt to turn their theme park attraction into a feature film is no better than the 2003 attempt starring Eddie Murphy. The overcrowded story is neither scary nor funny; it is merely dull. Not that it should be terrifying, but the audience should be giggling because it’s spooky in a fun kind of way. The only redeeming feature – and the only reason we give the movie more than one star – is the production design and special effects: the movie looks the way a Haunted Mansion movie should look. Too bad the script fails to do anything interesting inside the mansion’s walls.
Credits: Directed by Justin Simien. Written by Katie Dippold. Rated PG-13. 123 mins. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. US Theatrical Release Date: July 15, 2023.
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen WIlson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chase Dillon, Jared Leto.