Like movies based on children’s books, those based on amusement park rides can be hits (like Pirates of the Caribbean) or misses (like Polar Express). Disney’s new movie Haunted Mansion, based on the well-known Disney attraction of the same name, falls somewhere in between. Geared more toward children, director Justin Simien’s, with a script from Katie Dippold, fails to rise to its strong cast’s efforts but does provide some hilarious and entertaining moments.
Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), move into an old mansion in New Orleans, where, within minutes of arrival, they discover that the house is haunted by not just one but many ghosts. They attempt to leave, but a spirit attaches to them, forcing them to return to the mansion. Gabbie enlists Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), Kent (Owen Wilson), Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), and Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). Each has a unique set of skills – Ben, an astrophysicist, designed a specter-capturing camera; Kent is a priest; Bruce has all the research on the inhabitants and history of the house, and Harriet is an accomplished medium. They, too, become tied to the place after stepping over the threshold, and as a team, they become embroiled in a battle to rid the house of its paranormal residents. But first, they have to find out what evil controls everything.
What I found most interesting is Dippold and Simien’s inability to stay true to one style. At times, the film descends into slapstick silliness aimed at kids; at other times, some aspects border on too scary for little ones. Regardless, the cast shines, though. As an ensemble, they blend well and have excellent chemistry. They keep viewers engaged despite the flatness of some aspects of the story and the crew’s inability to stay true to the more adult themes. Initially, the film exhibits greater ambition and a somewhat more adult sensibility, exploring themes of loss and grief amidst the tributes to unfolding rooms and hitchhiking ghosts. When they stray to campy pratfalls and gags, the story loses momentum.
Haddish’s Harriet is a great deal of fun, as is DeVito’s Bruce. They offer plenty of laughs. Wilson does Wilson – the slick, awe-shucks banter and adlibbing are apparent. While the story begins with Gabbie and Travis (Dillion is EXCELLENT), it moves to Ben, whose personal loss makes him a prime target for a demon ghost seeking a soul to steal. Gabby (and Travis) and Ben provide the more serious elements of the plot, but together, the entire cast rock the film.
I liked this Haunted Mansion more than the 2003 version starring Eddie Murphy. The main strength of this 2023 version, in addition to the cast, lies in the overall production quality of the craziness inside the mansion. Stunning specters, moving artwork, secret passages, and other impressive set designs create engaging and entertaining elements. I am placing three stars up top for Haunted Mansion. The cast deserves far higher. As far as summer diversions go, this isn’t a bad one.