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Haunted Mansion Review

July 28, 2023 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
HAUNTED MANSION Image Credit: Jalen Marlowe/Disney Enterprises, Inc.
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Haunted Mansion Review  

Directed By: Justin Simien
Written By: Katie Dippold
Runtime: 122 minutes
MPA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and scary action.

LaKeith Stanfield – Ben Matthias
Rosario Dawson – Gabbie
Tiffany Haddish – Harriet
Owen Wilson – Father Kent
Danny DeVito – Bruce Davis
Chase W. Dillon – Travis
J.R. Adduci – William Gracey
Charity Jordan – Alyssa
Erika Coleman – Eleanor Gracey
Jamie Lee Curtis – Madame Leota
Jared Leto – The Hatbox Ghost

Walt Disney Studios attempts to find cinematic theatrical glory once again with its iconic theme park attractions. This time, it’s Haunted Mansion that has a second chance after spending 20 years in movie jail. Filmmaker Justin Simien achieves superior results with his new update, but the film suffers from an overly padded, clunky script.

Again set in the Crescent City of New Orleans, Ben Matthias is a miserly, drunken scientist, grieving over the loss of his beloved wife, Alyssa (Jordan). Once a NASA scientist, Ben developed a camera that can theoretically capture the image of departed spirits, something he came up with as his wife was a local ghost tour guide before she passed away. With the help of a priest, Father Kent (Wilson), Ben breaks out of the blur of his self-pitying, wallowing hangovers. Father Kent convinces Ben to help a single mother Gabbie (Dawson) and her son, Travis (Dillon), who believe their newly bought mansion is haunted. Ben goes through the motions of investigating the Gracey Mansion to collect his paycheck, and some of the spooky manor’s wayward spirits follow Ben home, forcing him to realize that ghosts are real. A terrifying, dark entity has taken control of the manor, and now it’s up to Ben to help Gabbie and Travis exorcise the home, so they can be free of the spirits’ mischievous actions.

They are eventually joined by a would-be psychic medium, Harriet (Haddish), and an eccentric Tulane University professor, Bruce David (DeVito), an expert about New Orleans’ old haunts. Unfortunately for the newly assembled ragtag group, the spirits are under the control of a malignant entity, The Hatbox Ghost (Leto), who only needs one last soul to complete his master plan, which the movie does not clarify very well.

Simien has an energetic directing style. The sets and production design for the film look lavish, and the New Orleans setting is infused throughout the movie, matching the city’s old-world charm for a fun ghost story. The love and enthusiasm for the classic Disney theme park attraction permeate the experience, as key setpieces from the ride are impressively recreated during the film adaptation. Simien handles the setpieces adapted from the ride in a way that makes sense and works with the unfolding plot.

The film’s ensemble cast, led by LaKeith Stanfield, is remarkably solid. Stanfield’s Ben Matthias is grounded by his emotional grief. The pain Ben is battling adds a genuine emotional, dramatic weight to the film, and Simien handles these moments with maturity and organic realism. In fact, despite starting as a goofy comedy, the film does have a fair share of genuine, surprisingly emotional moments; and the underlying message of accepting and dealing with loss and emotional grief is executed in a believable, thoughtful, and satisfying manner.

Normally, kids in movies such as this can be a roll of the dice, but the Travis character is executed remarkably well. Travis does not fall into the usual annoying, insufferable, wise-cracking kid stereotype usually found in family comedies, which is appreciated. Chase W. Dillon also performs the character’s quiet sadness with impeccable poise, and he’s a young talent with massive potential if he continues pursuing acting. While the film essentially telegraphs the major reveal of Travis’ future, Dillon handles the emotional breaking point in an incredibly believable, realistic manner. Haunted Mansion is at its best and most genuine during its emotional, dramatic moments.

The film suffers from a clunky, forced, and heavily padded script. Some awkwardly paced scenes happen upfront before the film’s natural prologue. The extraneous scenes do well in expanding Ben’s backstory, but they hurt the natural flow of the unfolding narrative. Later, the plot forces in an errant sidequest sequence for the main characters when the action already appears to be building toward the climax. In the sidequest, the characters are forced to travel to a completely different mansion. The presence of a second potentially haunted manor makes no sense in the film. The narrative jaunt to the second mansion breaks the narrative flow and suspense that the film had built up to at that point. The movie also poorly establishes why the Hatbox Ghost has taken up residence as the ghost host of the Gracey Manor.

While the film is a comedy, few of the jokes land well. There are some chuckles here and there throughout the film, but the film uses an abundance of that heavily improvised banter dialogue style, and many of the jokes tend to fall flat. Haunted Mansion could have used more terror and dread rather than leaning toward the cheap laughs. Haunted Mansion lacks a superior blending of horror with comedy that could have balanced out the experience. In addition, certain scenes play with a visual choppiness that undermines the film’s better moments.

The Hatbox Ghost is a good choice for the villain. He speaks in a foreboding manner, but his motivations are decidedly weak. The character’s presence appropriately haunts the film, but there seems to be no justification for Leto’s casting. There is nothing about Leto’s performance visually or vocally that looks like something only he could have done. The visual effects artists and CG animators did a great job with Hatbox Ghost’s visual presentation, but it’s not exactly an all-time performance by Leto.

Some credit is due to Kris Bowers’ exceptional score that uses the memorable tune of “Grim Grinning Ghosts” as its recurring motif, which audibly appears throughout the film, along with geographically appropriate New Orleans-style jazz music. At the very least, Haunted Mansion gets the music right this time.

Haunted Mansion is a decent family flick, and longtime Disney theme park enthusiasts and historians will likely appreciate the multitude of visual Easter eggs. Simien does a respectable job, but the script definitely could have used a few more years, in the development oven.

The final score: review Average
The 411
Haunted Mansion is decently enjoyable. It works as an amusing cinematic tribute to the theme park attraction with a solid cast and some surprisingly genuine, emotional moments. Some of the humor doesn't work, and the film suffers from a sometimes rather clunky script that needed a few more rewrites or the touch of someone like Guillermo del Toro to get the movie where it needed to be. Haunted Mansion falls short in capturing the creepy joy and entertainment of the theme park attraction. However, Simien's clear passion and love for the classic ride coalesce into a decent cinematic viewing experience for this latest entry.