Review by C.J. Bunce
Viewers know to gauge their expectations when a new movie is coming based on a ride at a Disney theme park. It could land flat like Disney’s Muppets Haunted Mansion. Once upon a time Disney hit a home run with its Pirates of the Caribbean series. Disney’s Haunted Mansion isn’t as elaborate, as dazzling, or brilliant as Pirates of the Caribbean, but a slow-burner that doesn’t find itself until the midpoint. It’s rare to find a movie that has a better second half than its first half. This is one of those movies. After a brief run in theaters and right in time for Halloween, Haunted Mansion is now streaming on Disney+.
Haunted Mansion stars LaKeith Stanfield (War Machine, Atlanta) as Ben Matthias, an astrophysicist specializing in lenses hired by a woman named Gabbie, played by Rosario Dawson (Ahsoka, Luke Cage), whose house is haunted–so haunted that the specters will not allow her or her son Travis (played by Chase Dillon) to leave without being incessantly haunted. Ben’s wife died in back story, and he–and every character in the film–is troubled with grief, something one of the ghosts feeds on. Why is this house in New Orleans haunted and filled with ghosts from every era? That’s for Ben, and viewers, to figure out.
Gabbie enlists others to help sort out her troubles: Owen Wilson (Loki, Wedding Crashers) is Father Kent, brought in because he presumably can conduct exorcisms, Danny DeVito (Taxi, Jumanji: The Next Level) is Professor Bruce Davis, who studies parapsychology, and Tiffany Haddish (Keanu, The LEGO Movie 2) is Harriet, a medium. Ultimately they bring in another helper, a psychic named Madame Leota, played by Jamie Lee Curtis (True Lies, Halloween). Even Winona Ryder (Stranger Things, Beetlejuice) has an appearance as a tour guide, and Jared Leto (Moebius) is unrecognizable as one of the ghosts–Dan Levy gets a cameo, too. That’s a pretty solid cast of familiar faces, but who do you think steals the show? It’s Haddish, who owns the screen in every scene.
The first half hour is clunky. The script struggles with tone. Some lines of dialogue belong in a kids’ Disney movie. Some concepts are tap into too much real-life, serious drama than many kids could handle, especially for a night of family entertainment. Who is the audience for the movie, then? It’s hard to tell. But for those that stick around, at the halfway marker the actors find their characters, the cast comes together, and an interesting story emerges. The ensemble cast has the vibe of the Night at the Museum movies. The story has a few elements from The Goonies once the boy starts tracking the clues in the mansion, but it’s closer in quality and production value to Finding ‘Ohana.
But sticking around for the second ninety minutes of the movie is worth it. LaKeith Stanfield was smartly cast as a compelling lead. Rosario Dawson is stuck in the mom role, but Luke Wilson, Danny DeVito, and Tiffany Haddish infuse humor into a story that becomes a tad too serious for the brand of strange spirits on the screen. Most of the ghosts have some good makeups and costumes. Others are apparitions that spin around, much like the ghosts at the Disney park ride the story is based on. The finale incorporates interesting corridor twists and scenes straight out of an M.C. Escher painting. But all of it feels more direct-to-TV than something of the quality traditionally made for theaters.
For anyone with a Disney+ subscription, you might find it in the category of movies that is “better than it ought to be,” and it’s definitely more fun than the Disney park ride. It’s October and every night is a good night for a new Halloween movie, so add Haunted Mansion to your list. It’s now streaming on Disney+.