Disney’s Haunted Mansion is one of the most iconic theme park attractions ever. Both at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the Haunted Mansion always has some of the longest lines year round. The original ride opened in 1969, and over the last several decades, it has only grown in popularity.
Given the ride’s popularity, it makes sense that there would be strong interest in seeing the beloved attraction, which has a bit of a narrative story built-in, adapted into a feature film. Back in 2003, the Haunted Mansion was made into a live-action film starring Eddie Murphy, but the film didn’t quite land with critics or fans.
Thankfully, Walt Disney Pictures didn’t give up on the idea, and the latest Haunted Mansion, directed by Justin Simien, is a loving homage to the classic theme park attraction as well as a heartfelt story about loss and found family. It’s also full of family friendly thrills that fans of all ages can enjoy.
Disney’s Haunted Mansion premieres in theaters July 28, 2023.
Inspired by the classic theme park attraction, “Haunted Mansion” is about a woman and her son who enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts to help rid their home of supernatural squatters. The film’s producers are Dan Lin and Jonathan Eirich, with Nick Reynolds and Tom Peitzman serving as executive producers.
In many ways, director Justin Simien, creator of the critically acclaimed series Dear White People, was born to make Haunted Mansion. Simien, who has family in New Orleans, LA, fell in love with the Haunted Mansion attraction at Walt Disney World as a child, and even worked as a cast member at Disneyland during his film school days. His love for the attraction and all things Disney are readily apparent, as fun easter eggs and homages are sprinkled throughout the film. Indeed, Haunted Mansion gives you the feeling that both the film’s characters and the audience are actively engaged in the ride, with countless iconic imagery, like the dining room full of ghosts, floating candles and haunted portraits, embedded into the story.
Fortunately, as much as Simien loves the theme park ride, he understands that references don’t make a film. Haunted Mansion is anchored by a surprisingly emotional story about loss and healing, and also features an absolutely stellar cast.
LaKeith Stanfield plays Ben, a former scientist grieving from loss. Ben is the audience proxy, as he is unwittingly lured to the mansion, not knowing it’s haunted. Stanfield brings his trademark easygoing charm to the role, making Ben an amusingly relatable protagonist who’s easy to root for. The details of his past is held as a partial mystery that is slowly revealed as Ben develops throughout his journey in the mansion.
Much of the film’s story is told as a partial mystery, reasonably easy to predict with some thought, but enjoyable for those who are just along for the ride.
Ben is lured to the mansion by Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and Father Kent (Owen Wilson), who, along with Gabbie’s son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), are prohibited from leaving the grounds by ghosts. They need Ben for his invention, a camera that can capture images of spirits.
Dawson and Dillon play a mother and son duo looking for a fresh start after experiencing their own (slightly mysterious) trauma. Dillon in particular is a gem. He’s so precocious and likable, and the connection that he shares with Stanfield forms the emotional core of the story. Both Ben and Travis need to heal, and they need each other to do so.
The star-stuffed cast is rounded out by Tiffany Haddish and Jamie Lee Curtis, who both play mediums, and Danny DeVito, who plays a New Orleans historian. The group form an all-star ghost busting team brought together to figure out what’s happening in the mansion and how to break free of its ghastly grasp.
The group of comedic talents make for a highly entertaining journey full of family friendly jump scares and ultimately come together to tell a story about how healing can come from the most unexpected places and the most unlikely people.
One would expect that Haunted Mansion would just be about characters running from ghosts, and it certainly has that, but the relationship between Ben and Travis, along with the rest of the team, add a depth to the story that elevates this film.
As strong as the cast is and as much as the story provides a welcome emotional weight, the film’s primary antagonist, the villainous Alistair Crump (Jared Leto), is largely disappointing, as is the unnecessary visual spectacle in the finale.
Crump in the film is little more than a one-note villain, evil for the sake of being evil, and with the trite motivation of a spirit wanting to invade the physical world. Aside from Crump, most of the ghosts in the film are almost endearingly depicted. But it’s not so much that Crump is purely evil, it’s just that he never seems to pose a genuine threat to our heroes.
There’s a half-hearted attempt to tell Crump’s backstory, but ultimately, the Hatbox ghost in this film looks more frightful than he actually is. In fact, his most powerful weapon is a rather uninspiring attempt to catfish one of the group members, and at no point do you actually think he will succeed.
Crump’s, unconvincing threat culminates in a CGI-infused finale, reminiscent of Harry Potter, or your favorite superhero film. Ben and Crump face off in a battle that is a visual spectacle that detracts from an otherwise enjoyably intimate film.
Haunted Mansion not only features a wonderfully diverse cast, with a Black director and a woman writer, but the essence of the story is a family relationship between LaKeith Stanfield’s Ben, Chase Dillon’s Travis and Rosario Dawson’s Gabbie. It’s rare and inspiring to see the kind of emotionally affirming and loving dynamic between diverse characters and it’s a very welcome addition to a story inspired by a theme park attraction.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
THE RATING – 3.5/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.