Film Review: Haunted Mansion
Director: Justin Simien
Walt Disney Pictures
In Theaters: 07.28
Despite the fact that I’ve never actually been to any Disney parks, I grew up associating the best parts of Halloween with the House of Mouse, whether it was with Ichabod Crane running from the Headless Horseman or Mickey, Donald and Goofy fending off Lonesome Ghosts. I love a good spooky, Disney Halloween treat, and it was with this mindset that I entered Haunted Mansion, the second film based on the beloved Disneyland attraction.
In Haunted Mansion, single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, Unstoppable) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillion, The Harder They Fall) move into a mansion in New Orleans, only to learn that they are far from alone. The two enlist the aid of a priest named Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Wedding Crashers), who in turn asks for help from Ben (LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You, Judas and the Black Messiah), a disgraced scientist–turned tour guide who has invented a camera that just might be able to capture images of departed souls. Before long, they are joined by Harriet (Tiffany Haddish, The Afterparty), a feisty medium, and Bruce (Danny DeVito, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), a professor of history who’s been around long enough to have witnessed his fair share. This ragtag group must band together, believe in themselves and the unbelievable if they are going to get through the spooktacular job ahead of them and rid mother and son of their paranormal pests.
Director Jason Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) approaches Haunted Mansion like a kid who has been waiting for Halloween all year, and that alone makes it difficult not to get into the spirit of things. The first 15 minutes are a bit sluggish, and I wasn’t feeling confident that I was going to have that much fun. Then as more of the characters are introduced and Ben comes to the mansion, the film settles into a groove, and I was quickly swept up by its playful, atmospheric charm. The tone stays light and fun while making space for a mildly macabre flavor, and Simien capably balances family-friendly comedy with drama, heart and gateway horror. The visual effects are top tier, though they keep within the spook-alley motif and never try to push things too far.
Haunted Mansion makes the most out of the star-studded ensemble, though Stanfield is more than capable of carrying the bulk of the film on his shoulders. One of Hollywood’s most magnetic, up-and-coming stars, Stanfield handles the drama of Ben’s emotional scars while still managing to squeeze the most out of the film’s humor, especially in a hilarious scene where he and Bruce are trying to get a police sketch artist to draw a suspect without telling him that it’s a skeletal specter. The chemistry between Stanfield and the lovable, young Dillion is also a highlight. Wilson and Haddish are delightful. It’s great to see DeVito in a major role again, and Jamie Lee Curtis is a lot of fun in what amounts to an extended cameo role. Even Jared Leto, whom I normally find to be almost as welcome a presence as crotch lice, is effective as the villainous Hatbox Ghost. Dawson isn’t given nearly enough to do, and it’s a good thing Disney has Star Wars: Ahsoka coming in August to make up for that.
Haunted Mansion is a fun, just-scary-enough-without-ever-being-too-scary, family-friendly film that isn’t going to traumatize kids and has more edge than Hocus Pocus. It’s a well-executed piece of entertainment that may struggle to find its footing in theaters, though it has a definite future as traditional October viewing. –Patrick Gibbs
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