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If you’ve ridden the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland even once, you’ll recognize many of its key elements in the new Disney film based on the iconic attraction. And if you’ve ridden it multiple times, you’ll have trouble keeping up with the myriad Easter eggs paying visual tribute to its inspiration that are scattered throughout the movie.
And that’s about as much fun as most people will have at Disney’s third attempt at bringing the ride’s spooky charms to the screen after 2003’s lamentable Eddie Murphy starrer and 2021’s enjoyable Muppets Haunted Mansion streaming special. Woefully short on the necessary laughs and scares that would have made it a potential blockbuster franchise like the Pirates of the Caribbean series, Haunted Mansion only makes you ponder how much better it might have turned out had Guillermo del Toro, who was originally attached to the project, remained creatively involved.
Beats waiting in line for the ride, but just barely.
Release date: Friday, July 28
Cast: LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson, Chase W. Dillon, Daniel Levy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto
Director: Justin Simien
Screenwriter: Katie Dippold
2 hours 2 minutes
As it is, the film directed by Justin Simien (Bad Hair, Dear White People) emerges as a routine entertainment that should reasonably please less discerning youngsters eager for some silly summer fun. Not that it isn’t without its artistic ambitions, as screenwriter Katie Dippold (The Heat, Ghostbusters) attempts to infuse emotions into the proceedings via a central character being haunted (not literally) by memories of his recently deceased wife. But the poignant subplot fits in uneasily with the appearances of such trademark apparitions as The Hat-Box Ghost (Jared Leto) and the disembodied head of Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis).
LaKeith Stanfield (Sorry to Bother You) plays Ben, a former astrophysicist who’s now depressed and drinking heavily after the death of his wife Alyssa (Charity Jordan, seen in flashbacks). Having invented a “spectral photography” camera in a vain attempt to see her again, he’s approached by Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a hipster priest who performs exorcisms. Father Kent is seeking Ben’s help with a current case involving a widowed doctor, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), and her nine-year-old son Travis (Chase W. Dillon, The Underground Railroad, more than holding his own with the adults), who have moved into a decrepit mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans that turns out to be, you guessed it, haunted.
At the mansion, the skeptical Ben makes a show of pretending to take pictures and leaves as soon as possible. But he quickly becomes a believer when the ghosts follow him home to his rundown house in the French Quarter. He winds up temporarily living in the mansion, along with fellow ghostbusting recruits Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a flamboyant medium who gives psychic readings at bar-mitzvahs, and Bruce (Danny DeVito), a Tulane University professor specializing in haunted houses.
Cue the predictable mayhem, with the production designers and special effects people doing their damnedest to recreate the thrills and chills of the venerable theme-park attraction. They succeed to an admirable degree using a visually dazzling combination of CGI and practical effects, but at a running time of over two hours, the experience eventually feels as wearisome as riding the same ride over and over again.
It doesn’t help that lead performers Stanfield and Dawson, while certainly appealing, lack the inspired comic chops (or material) to make their bland characters more than plot devices. DeVito, Haddish and Wilson fare much better, the last particularly amusing with his mellow line readings that contrast nicely with the visual mayhem surrounding him. But even these comedic pros can’t salvage such lame jokes as DeVito screaming “I’m too old to die!” while being manhandled by particularly aggressive spirits.
The film throws in plenty of cameos to minimal effect, with Hasan Minhaj, Marilu Henner, Jo Koy, Winona Ryder and Daniel Levy barely onscreen long enough to make any kind of impression. Curtis clearly seems to be once again tapping into her goofy side after her Oscar-winning turn in Everything Everywhere All at Once, while if you didn’t already know it was Leto as the Hat-Box Ghost you’d never be able to tell. Which is probably exactly how he likes it.