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Haunted Mansion: The Spirit is Meh

Boo. Or something.

Film is supposed to make you feel something. It doesn’t have to be profound or complicated. It can be as simple as feeling entertained, and a lot of films don’t aim much higher than that. That’s fine; several of my favorite movies are just meant to be Big Fun. But I left Haunted Mansion, Disney’s latest attempt to turn their theme park rides into a film franchise, feeling absolutely nothing. What can you say about a horror/comedy where the scariest thing is seeing the phrase “And Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost”?

This is where I summarize the plot, right? OK. So single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move into the titular New Orleans mansion. Turns out it’s haunted. Who knew? To put the ghosts to rest, they enlist the talents of ghost photographer Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), oddball priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), and the questionably-talented psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish).

This premise is stretched out over two incredibly long hours like the famous opening room of the actual Haunted Mansion ride. I will say that one of the things the film has going for it is a remarkable fidelity to the source material. As it were. Certainly more than Disney’s previous attempts at cinematically monetizing one of its most famous rides like the 2003 live-action film or the 2021 Muppet version. (Yes, the Muppet Haunted Mansion movie is a thing that exists.)

The double-edged sword here is that the film is so busy trying to throw out Easter eggs that it forgets to have a plot. Or compelling character acts. Or special effects that don’t look dated. It seems like more of an extended trailer for the ride itself than an actual film. It has a confined energy that can never gain momentum because it can never seem to leave the mansion, much like the cast of characters themselves.

The Bad Mojo Dojo Casa House.

Haunted Mansion constantly struggles to justify its existence, sometimes not even bothering to try. The first half of the film is an expositional mine field. Story beats are painted in broad, quick, often entirely predictable strokes. (The big third act twist is visible from miles away.) It glosses over the rules of its supernatural aspects to the point of frustration. Even Barbie did a better job of explaining its metaphysics, and that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write.

The script by Katie Dippold is honestly a big disappointment. Dippold also wrote the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot, which I thoroughly enjoyed and which married its comedy and horror aspects much better. Director Justin Simien is a talented man, but he often seems a bit out of his depth here. I don’t want to say it’s all his fault; this is a very competently-directed film. But I can imagine he and Dippold were both hamstrung by Disney and their desire to include as much of the ride as possible into the film. At one point, Guillermo del Toro was set to write the script, but Disney deemed his version to be too dark. Now that I would have loved to see.

But for what we ended up with, the results are adequate. They did the assignment. The comedy never rises above mildly amusing, and the horror is never more than just kind of creepy. It’s darker than the 2003 film, and for that I have to give it credit. It sometimes feels like it’s trying to appeal to the adults in the audience who watched the original as children. The film just lacks a clear identity most of the time, making it difficult to care much about the story and robbing action scenes of any danger. It gives off serious Jumanji vibes, right down to the questionable CGI.

But their head-in-a-jar technology is cutting edge.

What does end up making the film at least a little buoyant is its cast. While the characters as written are often thin and ill-defined, their actors are clearly giving it what they can. LaKeith Stansfield especially seems quite invested in his role, which is great seeing as he has the most screen time and most dramatic moments. His chemistry with Rosario Dawson never really gels, but Dawson herself has a very easy, casual energy here that makes Gabbie very likeable. Even Chase W. Dillon does a great job as her son Travis, giving a very natural and unforced performance.

The one who steals the show, at least from where I sit, is Tiffany Haddish. Haddish tones down her persona here a little bit, and it works perfectly. Harriet is never played as over-the-top, and Haddish works hard to give her character a grounded kind of whimsy. Harriet could have easily been made into a caricature, but Haddish humanizes her more than the script does, and possibly more so than the script deserves. A lot of her lines feel improvised, and she delivers the most consistently funny performance in the cast.

The supporting characters don’t try quite as much. Jamie Lee Curtis is the most prominent as the psychic Madame Leota. She’s fine here, but she’s done better, and she can’t seem to get her comedic timing right. There’s another cameo I won’t spoil here that temporarily brightened the scenes they’re featured in, but the look was reading very much “I Owed Someone a Favor and Now I Don’t Owe Them That Favor Anymore.” Like, why hire [name redacted] when they’re just going to sleepwalk through their lines?

Are you there, Script? It’s us, the cast.

It might sound like I’m really tearing this film down, and trust me I am, but I will say that I’ve seen much worse and recently. For me, the only thing worse than a bad movie is a boring movie, and this is definitely a Boring Movie. Even the families that were in my screening only seemed sort of amused by it. I still can’t hate on it too much, because I don’t know if there could ever be a truly excellent film based on the Haunted Mansion ride. This might be the best we can get.

The film ended up leaving me with a ton of questions. Questions like why am I watching this? Who is this film for? What random, vaguely eastern European accent is Jamie Lee Curtis going to attempt in her next scene? And why is Jared Leto? (Seriously, why?) I guess some things the world was never meant to know.

FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C

2 comments on “Haunted Mansion: The Spirit is Meh

  1. Madame Leota is meant to be Russian. Jamie Lee Curtis herself mentions this in interviews. My main complaint is that her accent seems to shift with every scene she’s in, and I never once thought it sounded Russian.

  2. Lf Matyas

    Making fun of Hungarians? You: “What random, vaguely eastern European accent is Jamie Lee Curtis going to attempt in her next scene?” Maybe you are just an uninformed critic who doesn’t know Jamie Lee Curtis would have heard it from dad and his family. FYI she is daughter of famous actor Tony Curtis of Hungarian ancestry.

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