Disney’s been making movies based on their rides for two decades now. We all remember the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Even a few of us remember the first Haunted Mansion in 2003. Well, kids, the “House of Mouse” is trying it again. This time out, they realized the problem. The first film wasn’t close enough to the ride. That was the problem. Right? Hitting theaters this week, will Haunted Mansion leave us humming “Grim Grinning Ghosts”? Or will it leave you searching for a way out? 

Haunted Mansion follows a young mother (Rosario Dawson) and her son (Chase Dillon) who move into… you guessed it… a haunted mansion. Overwhelmed and with few options, they bring in a colorful crew of paranormal experts to try and gain control over their ghostly housemates. LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Tiffany Hadish, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Jared Leto co-star in the film. Justin Simien directs Haunted Mansion from a script by Katie Dippold. 

Chase Dillon, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield, Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish shine flashlights as they look around a corner in Haunted Mansion.

(L-R): Chase Dillon as Travis, Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, LaKeith Stanfield as Ben, Owen Wilson as Father Kent, and Tiffany Haddish as Harriet in Disney’s HAUNTED MANSION. Photo by Jalen Marlowe. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Haunted Mansion is tethered to the ball and chain of nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong, as a fan of all things vintage Disney I enjoyed seeing all of the familiar references. In the grand scheme of things, all but one of the callbacks I expected were there and I enjoyed each and every one. 

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Unfortunately, though, this is to the detriment of Dippold’s screenplay. The ending result is a confused and uneven story that is more interested in setting up a callback than a developed story. 

A recurring issue seems to be a prioritization of a “tell don’t show” mentality when “Storytelling 101” tells us it should be the other way around. This results in everything from exposition dumps of the “people don’t talk like that” variety to a number of moments where the story inexplicably follows certain narrative threads while other (arguably) more visually interesting and important beats occur off-screen.  

Jamie Lee Curtis' head floats in a crystal ball tinged in a bluish light.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota in Disney’s HAUNTED MANSION. Photo courtesy of Disney. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

However, the story stops and dives into some meaty development, there’s some great work. Of the talented cast, the always brilliant LaKeith Stanfield benefits by far and away from the most focused narrative. 

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As Ben, Stanfield brings a complex and courageous performance. His character is admittedly a struggle in the early acts. He’s not likable. However, thanks to Stanfield’s beautiful work with Ben’s poignant grief narrative, we learn who this man is. He grows, he evolves and due to this, it’s his perspective we’re largely tied to. 

Unfortunately, Ben is apparently the only character the movie seems to care for. This isn’t to say the other actors aren’t bringing it though. They are. However, they exist not as human beings, but rather to play types. Owen Wilson is bringing his best Father Guido Sarducci, but he is ultimately playing an Owen Wilson type. Danny DeVito carries much of the comedic relief, but little else. Meanwhile, Tiffany Hadish and particularly Rosario Dawson are little more than caricatures. We don’t know them as people. We know the roles they play in this story. 

Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Rosario Dawson and Tiffany Hadish look over a laptop screen as they stand in a ornate room.

(L-R): Owen Wilson as Father Kent, Danny DeVito as Bruce, Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, and Tiffany Haddish as Harriet in Disney’s live-action HAUNTED MANSION. Photo by Jalen Marlowe. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

At the same time though, these talented performers allow the movie to gel on screen into a fun viewing experience. I thoroughly enjoyed myself while watching in the theater. However, once I left and started marinating on the story it started to sag. Do with that what you will. 

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Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that director Justin Simien and cinematographer Jeffrey Waldron come together to create a movie that’s visually dank. Haunted Mansion provides us with yet another example of the “Disney Gloom” which is becoming oh-so-familiar. 

Tiffany Hadish, Rosario Dawson, LaKeith Stanfield and Danny DeVito look over a dusty chest as they stand in an equally dusty room.

(L-R): Tiffany Haddish as Harriet, Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, LaKeith Stanfield as Ben, and Danny DeVito as Bruce in Disney’s live-action HAUNTED MANSION. Photo by Jalen Marlowe. © 2023 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Yes, this is about a “haunted mansion.” There’s bound to be a certain amount of darkness, dust, and spiderwebs. However, even the ride demonstrates how this can still be a visually interesting setting. The visual flourishes are there, they’re just hidden under a layer of haze. Ultimately, Haunted Mansion is yet another in a long line of Disney films struggling to be cinematic. At this point, the issue is above the filmmakers and is more of an institutional pain point. 

When all is said and done, Haunted Mansion isn’t sure what it wants to be. While this movie is funny and easily likable on the surface, a look below the most basic comedic tenants shows it to be a confusing mess. An interesting story is convoluted by ham-handed nostalgia baiting. Ultimately, these likable and charismatic actors struggle under the weight of a clunky script and uncinematic visuals to middling results. 

Haunted Mansion debuts in theaters around the country on July 28, 2023.

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Kimberly Pierce
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