Comedy Drama

Review: ‘Haunted Mansion’ is a Throwback to Disney’s Live-Action Classics that Captures the Experience of the Original Theme Park Ride

July 25, 2023Ben MK

Everyone loves a good ghost story. And whether you believe in the supernatural or not, it's hard to deny the appeal of a ghoulishly old-fashioned spooky tale. It's the same driving principle that has made the Haunted Mansion theme park attraction such an iconic and essential part of the Disneyland experience. And now, 20 years after Eddie Murphy first went head to head with a house full of seemingly angry apparitions, director Justin Simien is once again bringing the beloved ride to the big screen. But does this second go-round have what it takes to scare up a frightfully good time for moviegoers?

Set in New Orleans, the story follows Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), a former astrophysicist who's been struggling to get over the death of his wife, Alyssa (Charity Jordan). Once a promising young researcher at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, Ben now mostly relegates himself to his apartment, only stepping outside once in a while to have a drink at the local bar or give guided walking tours to visiting sightseers hoping to see a spirit or two along the way. However, when Ben is approached one day by a priest named Kent (Owen Wilson) offering $2,000 to get his help to prove the existence of real-life spectres, he finds the offer too tempting to turn down. The inventor of a quantum camera capable of capturing the elusive ghost particle, Ben is quite possibly the only person on the planet capable of helping single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her 9-year-old son Travis (Chase Dillon), who have recently taken up residence in the city's most haunted landmark, Gracey Manor. What Ben doesn't realize, unfortunately, is that once he sets foot on the infamous property, he may not be able to leave.

Purportedly haunted by 999 restless spirits, Gracey Manor is no ordinary haunted house. Once owned by Edward Gracey, the mansion became a haven for lost souls when Gracey enlisted the services of a psychic by the name of Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis). Tasked with leading seance after seance in an attempt to contact Gracey's dead wife, Leota inadvertently opened up a portal between the worlds of the living and the dead. But it was when an entity known only as the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) stepped through the portal that things took a decidedly sinister turn. Hellbent on attaining the ultimate power, the Hatbox Ghost needs just one more willing soul to make him unstoppable. What this grinning ghoul never counted on, though, was Gracey Manor's newest inhabitants. And with some help from a sassy medium named Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and an eager professor named Bruce (Danny DeVito), they might finally be able to vanquish the Hatbox Ghost once and for all.

Following in the footsteps of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, the result endeavors to replicate the experience of being a guest on Disneyland's Haunted Mansion ride while also rooting the film in a heartfelt tale about overcoming grief and finding a sense of belonging. And even though Haunted Mansion doesn't quite live up to the legacy left by its spiritual predecessor, it still manages to scare up its share of laughs and family-friendly frights, thanks to committed performances from Stanfield, Dawson and Dillon in particular, with Wilson, DeVito and Haddish bringing their trademark personalities to their supporting roles, while Curtis and Leto both appear to be having fun chewing the scenery as a couple of the original attraction's most memorable characters.

It all adds up to a remake that's superior to the 2003 version. However, it's viewers who have never seen the original who will arguably enjoy the movie's shenanigans the most. Part sentimental drama, part supernatural comedy, Haunted Mansion has no qualms about being an unabashed throwback to Disney's classic live-action adventures from the '80s. And while some audiences might consider the film's conventional storyline and lack of liberal agenda disappointing, it nonetheless perfectly captures the feeling of an old-school theme park ride.

Haunted Mansion releases July 28th, 2023 from Walt Disney Studios. The film has an MPAA rating of PG-13 for some thematic elements and scary action. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 2 min.

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