Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Lakeith Stanfield, and Owen Wilson in HAUNTED MANSION (via Disney)

Grim Grinning Ghosts Take a Backseat to Family Drama in Disney’s ‘Haunted Mansion’

3/5 doom buggies

Since it first opened its ornate doors to guests in August of 1969, The Haunted Mansion at Disneyland has remained one of Disney’s most iconic, well-loved theme park attractions. The ride is an entirely original concept, so thoroughly embraced by guests that it’s since spawned versions at Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Tokyo Disneyland. Disney’s last stab at a Haunted Mansion movie (2003’s The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy) didn’t quite resonate with fans or do justice to the ride. Twenty years later, Justin Simien once again invites viewers to enter the haunted halls of the Haunted Mansion—and though it may have some structural and pacing issues, the film’s earnest emotional core and stunning attention to detail make this new reimagining a worthy ode to a theme park icon.

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The film follows Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) a pragmatic single mother, and her precocious young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) who move into an abandoned mansion north of New Orleans in search of a fresh start. The unsuspecting duo quickly realizes that their new house is home to countless spectral squatters, and turn to an unlikely gaggle of experts to rid them of their unwanted guests. Alongside physicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), and an eccentric professor (Danny DeVito), Gabbie and Travis race to permanently banish the spirits in their home before their sinister ringleader Alistair Crump aka the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) turns the band of living heroes into the mansion’s next batch of permanent residents.

What’s immediately and pervasively apparent about Haunted Mansion is its reverence for and interest in preserving the legacy of the original Disneyland ride. To try and point out every small detail, reference, or nod to the ride (and its many international successors) would be virtually impossible—from door handles to candelabras to costume design, Haunted Mansion fills every frame with countless homages to the original. For fans of the Disney Parks, it’s a delightful two-hour “I Spy” game of trying to catch all the easter eggs. And though not all of the ghosts may have been given as much screen time as this former Mansion Maid might’ve liked, it’s obvious that Semien approached the project intending to honor the attraction in a way the 2003 film only dabbled in.

Production designer Darren Gilford and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron work in harmony to capture the paradoxically ominous yet whimsical feel of the mansion and bring it to life. Disorienting endless hallways, Escher-like staircases, and all manner of other clever camera tricks that emulate scenes from the ride while still keeping the world of the film as grounded as possible. As for the story itself, Haunted Mansion takes the familiar beats of a classic haunted house flick and peppers them with the now-requisite live-action Disney flavor: quippy side characters, a smattering of pop culture references, and tongue-in-cheek, self-aware humor are woven throughout this otherwise standard approach to a ghost story.

But while the narrative may not be anything particularly riveting, Haunted Mansion has a strange struggle when it comes to structure and pacing—an issue that can be boiled down to indecisiveness over whether or not Dawson’s Gabbie or Stanfield’s Ben is the true protagonist of the film. Haunted Mansion wants to make this a story about how grief manifests and impacts everyone differently. But in splitting the first act of the film so squarely between Gabbie and Ben, both narratives end up feeling relatively half-baked. The repetitive ping-ponging between their storylines, before everyone comes together at the mansion, makes for a dizzying and frustratingly paced first hour.

Between the two, it’s Stanfield’s Ben who comes out of the film with the strongest arc. Heartbroken over the death of his wife, he slowly learns to accept her passing and embrace life after grief. He also forms new ties with the unlikely found family of the mansion’s living residents. Admittedly, the one-note nature of his character can feel repetitive, but Stanfield is able to elevate this relatively bare-bones story with a grounded, wholehearted performance that gives the entire film an unexpected emotional gravity.

To a lesser extent, Dawson is able to bring a similar flavor of emotional maturity to help balance out the outlandish antics of Haddish and DeVito (who are playing into the high-camp comedy elements also present in the ride). But again, the film’s structure is such that she ends up feeling like a watered-down regurgitation of a character we already got in Ben. While she may not be given as much material as this critic would’ve liked, though, the same can’t be said for Chase Dillon’s Travis—a 13-year-old scene-stealer whose dramatic chops (especially in the third act) push the emotional climax of Haunted Mansion into genuinely heartbreaking territory.

Certainly, the unexpected ruminations on the nature of grief and the struggle to find joy after losing a loved one makes for a much more substantial story in contrast to some of Disney’s other live-action entries. But the inner turmoil of the living characters means the film often ends up letting one crucial element fall to the wayside: the ghosts. Sure, you see plenty of them—in addition to Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota and Jared Leto as Crump/The Hatbox Ghost, Haunted Mansion features all manner of spooks and spirits found in the ride. But their presence in the film is almost entirely cosmetic. Characters who have rich backstories in the ride up being reduced to one-off jokes or jump scares—Constance Hatchaway/The Black Widow Bride suffers this treatment the most.

Even Curtis and Leto (though both play their roles with requisite panache) end up feeling tertiary in the grand scheme of things—a grave disappointment (pun intended) when the lore of the Haunted Mansion ride is so rich and well-loved because of its many unique ghost stories. Still, to see so many minor spirits and residents of the Mansion get their time in the spotlight (even if it’s only a glimpse) is incredibly gratifying as a Haunted Mansion diehard. And for those looking to spot characters like the Sinister 11 or the Hitchhiking Ghosts, you’ll undoubtedly leave satisfied.

In the end, Haunted Mansion is without question one of Disney’s most intriguing approaches to ride adaptations thus far: an odd mixture of homages to the ride, earnest emotional storytelling, and conventional studio quirkiness that (though not always elegantly strung together) makes for an unexpected and often delightful ode to a Disney classic.

(featured image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)


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Author
Lauren Coates
Lauren Coates (she/her)is a freelance film/tv critic and entertainment journalist, who has been working in digital media since 2019. Besides writing at The Mary Sue, her other bylines include Nerdist, Paste, RogerEbert, and The Playlist. In addition to all things sci-fi and horror, she has particular interest in queer and female-led stories. When she's not writing, she's exploring Chicago, binge-watching Star Trek, or planning her next trip to the Disney parks. You can follow her on twitter @laurenjcoates