The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
In 2003, the Walt Disney Company was in something of a wilderness period. After a dominant 1990s, on the strength of the recurrence of their animation department, they were struggling to chart the waters for their future. In what was seen as a sign of desperation at the time, they came out with two films based on their most popular Disneyland attractions. One was Pirates of the Caribbean: the Curse of the Black Pearl, a critical and financial global hit that ushered in a franchise that eventually spawned the most expensive film ever made, and marked a turning point for the studio to eventually become the dominant popular culture juggernaut.
The other film was The Haunted Mansion, the latest in a long string of Eddie Murphy-helmed family comedies that more or less put Murphy’s mid-career persona against the backdrop of the beloved ride. The end result was a film that, while functional, played more as a Murphy vehicle than an especially fitting love letter to the ride itself. It also struggled under a more laboriously convoluted plot than a breezy family comedy should necessitate. Unlike Pirates, no sequels ever manifested and the film was destined to be mostly an interesting footnote to history.
A long-in-development reboot finally comes out this year, dropping the definite article, from Dear White People director Justin Simien, and the film makes the wise decision to spread the heavy lifting slightly, pulling in an all-star comedy cast of Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito, along with a more straightlaced hero in LaKeith Stanfield, to more or less play variations on their own personas against the Mansion’s backdrop. The end result is an amusing ode to the ride itself that will tickle the dopamine brain, but places most of the heavy lifting on Stanfield’s shoulders. The end result is a film that betrays its origins as a theme park attraction, until it clunks into place in an attempt to drive at deeper themes it has not equipped itself to tackle meaningfully.
Stanfield plays Ben, a disgraced developer of lenses used in astrophysics who attempted to develop a means to capture photographs of ghosts after the death of his wife. Now slumming it as New Orleans’ least engaged tour guide, he is approached by Father Kent (Wilson), an unorthodox priest who has been assisting Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) with a ghost problem in their house. When offered a significant cash payment to take pictures in the home, Ben agrees, certain there is nothing to be found.
Of course the house in question turns out to be the iconic, titular mansion, and Ben himself becomes a victim of a hitchhiking ghost that drives him back to the mansion to fulfill an uncertain purpose. Soon Ben, Kent and Gabbie recruit a whole team of paranormal experts, that include budget psychic medium Harriet (Haddish) and an academic expert on New Orleans haunting Bruce (DeVito). The crew soon uncover the secrets of the Mansion, and how the various ghosts are held hostage by the infamous Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto, in a performance that is entirely performance capture and voice acting).
The film’s general premise, which blends comedic hijinx alongside light-hearted creepies, will most directly remind viewers of 1980s horror comedies of the likes of Ghostbusters or especially Beetlejuice. Winona Ryder even shows up for an amusing cameo. But unlike those films, which have distinct perspectives and visions of their worlds, much of Haunted Mansion plays like a spot-the-reference game, playing out show scenes from the dark ride in cinematic fashion to various degrees of success. The end result is a more faithful recreation of the source material, a playful showcase of beloved set pieces in a new format. It begs the question why it wasn’t a Disney+ exclusive, if not for the fact that between impressive visual effects and a star-studded cast, it was likely very expensive.
This light touch however is somewhat betrayed by Stanfield’s Ben, whose grief over his lost wife and the depression that follows serve as a major crux for the plot to work through. The contrast between these two poles, a comedic reimagining of a theme park attraction and an earnest reflection of the pain of losing beloved people, causes a sense of whiplash that the film never quite balances, a commercial servant to disperse masters. Simien and screenwriter Katie Dippold clearly have a perspective they want to explore, and ideas regarding how death can affect the living. But these scenes hit more strangely when appearing between literal Scooby Doo homages.
The great magic of the Haunted Mansion ride is that it takes the universally macabre subject of death and twists into enchanting comic fun. When the film then turns back around and tries to take those same subjects on face value, it makes the fun feel cheaper and irreverent by comparison. In this way, the new Haunted Mansion sets its sights both higher and lower than the attempt two decades prior. In both directions it works better than the first go around, but it still feels like a trifling effort, an exercise in adaptation that flounders due its own split vision.
Perhaps they’ll get it right in 2043.