Movie Review: Haunted Mansion

Disney’s latest try at a big-screen “Haunted Mansion” is cute and funny, but it misses the chance to make something truly memorable out of its iconic IP.


The Haunted Mansion at Disney World is one of my favorite places on the planet.

I say places deliberately, rather than simply describing it as one of my favorite rides. The ride is excellent, to be sure — probably the best dark ride ever built. But, like the best theme-park attractions, this is a place, not merely a ride. When I think of the Haunted Mansion, I think of the foreboding facade, the whimsical headstones outside, the instantly identifiable color and shape of the rooms inside.

It’s a shame, then, that the structure in the “Haunted Mansion” film has no sense of place.

Disney has tried, for a second time (after a limp 2003 dud starring Eddie Murphy), to turn the ride and its grim grinning ghosts into a narrative film. The results are invariably cute, frequently charming and substantially boosted by an excellent cast.

Unfortunately, the story — and more importantly, the titular manse — are so unimaginative that this “Haunted Mansion” cannot be counted as anything more than a missed opportunity.

Outside of a storybook facsimile of New Orleans, an imposing structure has been purchased by an unwitting mother (Rosario Dawson), who moves in with her sharp-dressed 10-year-old (Chase Dillon) with the intention of converting the place into a bed and breakfast. Bad news, though: The place is stuffed with 999 ghosts, the irritable victims of a long-running immortality scheme conducted by the sinister Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto).

Anyone who enters the place is compelled to stay, so our haunted mother and child gather a rogue’s gallery of helpers: a grieving widower with a spectral camera (Lakeith Stanfield), an aspirational medium (Tiffany Haddish), an ailing historian (Danny DeVito) and an optimistic priest (Owen Wilson). Together, they’ll commune with some of the spirits — famed, departed mystic Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) chief among them — to try and free some spirits.

With hundreds of years of horror fiction to choose from, Disney — and screenwriter Katie Dippold, a comedy specialist — could’ve easily chosen a sturdy plot to ape. Instead, they took the shortest route possible: Turning a line from the theme-park attraction into a whole story. Famously, riders are told the house contains “999 happy haunts — but there’s always room for one more.” That turns out to be more or less the whole action of the story, much to the film’s detriment.

Most of the enjoyable moments are taken directly from the ride; even the attraction’s signature ride vehicles turn up, as several human visitors are whisked out of the house on concave chairs. When director Justin Simien isn’t trying to capture the look of a moment in the ride, he presents unremarkable rooms in unremarkable ways, foregrounding his cast (and their many flashbacks and asides) rather than the building that should be the star of the show.

It might still tip its way into a serviceable time-killer were it not for a somber tone entirely at odds with the sanitized spookiness on display. Two characters are deep in mourning and even contemplate joining the spirits — read between the lines, there — to reunite with loved ones. There are much darker films that can explore such subjects with grace, but a Disney romp is not that kind of movie.

Unfortunately, this “Haunted Mansion” is never quite sure what kind of movie it is.

My Rating: 5/10

“Haunted Mansion” is now playing in theaters.

Categories: Sean Collier’s Popcorn for Dinner