Disney continues to swing and miss with films based on their theme park attractions. Okay, sure, Pirates of the Caribbean has made billions and is getting a reboot, but Tomorrowland and Jungle Cruise are objectively pretty terrible, bland, cynical corporate work product. But at least they aren’t the awful 2003 The Haunted Mansion with Eddie Murphy, which was both a dud and sorta embarrasing. A very low bar already established, it should be ease for Justin Simien’s glossy new Haunted Mansion to clear, but short of a few laughs by Tiffany Haddish as a questionably reliable psychic, it leaves an impression as wispy as a ghost.
It’s not that Haunted Mansion is without laughs. Screenwriter Katie Dippold, known for the all-female Ghostbusters movie that was unfairly trashed, is too good for that. But the whole thing feels clunky and drab, the few moments of inspiration jammed together in the opening moments. Simien wisely taps into the spirited New Orleans culture for this story of haunted houses and wayward spirits. It’s here that we meet Ben, played with easy cool by LaKeith Stanfield. Ben is an astrophysicist who has never been good with people. In an overlong but touching prelude, we see Ben meet with his future wife, a haunted house tour guide. She’s lively and outgoing, a perfect match for his introverted nature.
As happy as Ben is with her, that’s how depressed he is when we meet him next, following his wife’s death. While bitter and abrasive, he somehow gets roped into joining a bunch of misfits and potential con artists in helping Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her shy son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) with exorcising some ghosts from their new home, a spooky, dimly-lit mansion that nobody with any sense would ever move into willingly. Joining in on this paranormal exercise are Father Kent, played with the shady charm that only Owen Wilson can deliver; a mouthy medium named Harriet, played by Haddish, and Danny DeVito as haunted house historian Professor Bruce Davis whose recurring heart problems and curmudgeonly attitude are good for a bit of fun.
On paper, Simien is a perfect fit for Haunted Mansion. His breakthrough coming with the brilliant racial satire Dear White People (and its subsequent TV series), followed by the underrated horror-comedy Bad Hair, he has all of the experience to get this right. But Simien’s real strength is as a writer; a gifted one with keen observational skills. His script would’ve done this movie a world of good in exploring the inner lives of Ben, a genius-level intellect who has invented a camera capable of “seeing” ghosts, and yet denies their existence. We learn next to nothing about Gabbie or her son. They’re basically shuffled around to get chased by living suits of armor or sent to dive through old history books while the bigger personalities get the flashier stuff.
Speaking of big personalities, one of them spends the entire movie contained within a crystal ball. Well, her head, anyway. Jamie Lee Curtis isn’t given much to work with as Madame Leota, a powerful medium key to figuring out what’s going on. Dan Levy has maybe two lines as a histrionic tour guide, while Jared Leto…well, he can’t exactly ruin the Hatbox Ghost since he only provides the Cryptkeeper-like demon’s voice. And yet somehow Leto is still annoying. It’s truly a talent. Actually, the bigger problem is that the Hatbox Ghost doesn’t feel all that special when he arrives, despite being the attraction’s most iconic figure.
Haunted Mansion offers an uneven mix of Goosebumps-level scares and humor. If anything, it’s probably more frightening than young kids will be ready for. Leaning into the horror would’ve been a fine way to give this film some personality, but soon it devolves into a series of treasure hunts and lame puzzle-solving that feels like some studio exec really liked Harry Potter. If this movie fails, perhaps Disney will turn to another of their attractions for the next attempted franchise? When do Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind get their turn?
Haunted Mansion opens in theaters on July 28th.