Disney’s New Haunted Mansion Doesn’t Give Audiences a Ghost of a Chance to Enjoy Themselves
Haunted Mansion comes so close to being good that it’s honestly infuriating that it comes up short. It’s frankly annoying.
But all of the pieces are in place: A game cast willing to give themselves over to the inherent silliness of a scenario more closely aligned to the iconic Disney amusement park ride than the 2003 Eddie Murphy comedy ever was. Fun, imaginative visuals coupled with excellent digital effects work and spectacular production design courtesy of Darren Gilford(TRON: Legacy, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens). A superb score composed by Oscar-nominee Kris Bowers (King Richard) that fuses New Orleans rhythms, Buddy Baker’s classic “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” and his own creatively intoxicating themes.
So what’s the problem? For one thing, as much success as screenwriter Katie Dippold (The Heat) and director Justin Simien (Dear White People) may have had in the past, their creative sensibilities seem to be entirely out of synch on this project. While there are delightful bits sprinkled in here and there, much of the comedy falls flat, the deadly stakes the main characters are trying to overcome are annoyingly weightless, and — unlike the theme park ride — there is no enjoyably creepy momentum propelling events forward.
Then there is the frenetic, ponderously disjointed climax. What should be a visually splendid whirligig of supernatural havoc — mixed with cathartically relatable human revelation revolving around grief, forgiveness, and love — instead becomes a video game scene of cartoonish chaos and melodramatically dull heroics. The entire ending is unforgivably turgid, and it nearly erases all of the goodwill generated by the stuff that does work. It sent me out of the theater wondering what in the heck happened for it all to go wrong.
There is much to like about how Dippold sets events in motion. Single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move into a dilapidated Louisiana mansion with hopes of transforming it into a bed-and-breakfast, only to discover it’s haunted by 999 ghosts. They turn to Father Kent (Owen Wilson) for help, and he enlists astrophysicist-turned-tour guide Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and historian Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito) for additional aid.
Turns out the estate hides a terrible secret: a powerful poltergeist known only as “the Hatbox Ghost” (Jared Leto) has been trapping souls for over a century, and he only needs one more to unleash unimaginable evil upon the world. The problem is, this person must give themselves over to the afterlife willingly — and that’s where Ben comes in. His grief over a recent loss is so omnipresent that the Hatbox Ghost intends to pull out all the stops to trick him into succumbing to his pain, and in doing so give the grinning ghoul the power he’s been lusting after.
Ben is the main character. Kent, Harriet, and Bruce also make more of an impact on what’s going on inside this haunted mansion than Gabbie and Travis do. Until around the two-thirds mark, it’s almost as if Dippold and Simien forget about the duo entirely. This is especially maddening, as the relationship between Ben and Travis gradually ends up becoming the most important one in the entire story. But the bond they create isn’t authentic. As good as Stanfield and Dillon are working with one another — and they are very, very good indeed — that does not make their characters’ interactions emotionally genuine, and this is a major reason the climax misfires.
There are some wonderful sequences, not the least of which is a brief sojourn to a different Louisiana estate entirely. Ben and Kent search for a way to end the Hatbox Ghost’s reign of terror and are forced to suffer through a delightfully dull guided tour led by a perfectly cast gothic megastar who’s sowed their oats working with Tim Burton in classics like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. It’s extremely funny stuff.
I also quite liked an extended séance sequence in which Ben finds himself transported into the realm of the departed and interacts with several of the ghosts trapped in the mansion, including the original owner, William Gracey (J.R. Adduci). This is also the only point in the tale where the Hatbox Ghost is legitimately scary, and if the menace this demon exudes here had been present for all of the comedy-thriller’s laborious 122-minute running time, maybe I wouldn’t have felt nearly as let down by the final product as I sadly did.
(As a refresher, that aforementioned Eddie Murphy version didn’t even run an hour-and-a-half and, as forgettable as it may have been, it still offered up more thrills, chills, and especially laughs than this new incarnation does, and it had an even more convoluted, nonsensical narrative.)
Part of me feels I may be coming down on this film too harshly. DeVito frequently steals the show, Stansfield deserves to be a major star, and there are a plethora of positives hiding in the darkened corridors of this ride into the unknown. But there aren’t enough of them. The missteps are too noticeable, and the ending does remain an absolute waste of time. It’s time for Disney to give up the ghost on trying to transmogrify its legendary theme park ride into a viable cinematic franchise, as this new Haunted Mansion is dead on arrival.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)