Movie Review: “Haunted Mansion”


Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, LaKeith Stanfield and Tiffany Haddish in "Haunted Mansion"

Why are movies so dark nowadays? I mean in terms of actual lighting, not content. I know that there are some practical/technical reasons behind it, but it’s still a stylistic choice that literally dims the power of most films. Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” has a lot going for it, but one of its biggest flaws is just how much is muted due to the darkness that pervades every frame. Even scenes that take place in the blazing sun of the afternoon still have a shadowy tinge to them. This decision obscures so much on screen (possibly intentionally) that it impacts the wonder that director Justin Simien tries to cultivate, marring what is otherwise a mostly fun family movie that will likely become an annual tradition among folks at Halloween time.

Having fallen on hard times following the death of his wife, former astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) has taken over her history walking tour of New Orleans, which he insists is not a ghost tour, as he doesn’t believe in such things anymore. Despite his newfound skepticism, Ben has invented a special type of camera that can supposedly capture images of ghosts, which leads to him being recruited by Father Kent (Owen Wilson) to help investigate a potentially haunted mansion occupied by a single mother named Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon). When it becomes apparent that the mansion is in fact haunted, a medium (Tiffany Haddish) and a historian (Danny DeVito) are brought in to help determine the cause and find a solution to these spectral problems.

A good word to describe “Haunted Mansion” is “cute.” Despite being pretty obvious in its narrative, the film contains some funny bits and entertaining sequences, and is enjoyable enough for what it is. For ardent Disney theme park fans who have been looking forward to the long-gestating movie since the first attempt at a big-screen adaptation with Eddie Murphy in 2003, “Haunted Mansion” retains the spirit of the ride without providing any real invention. All said, it’s a harmlessly macabre time with some moments of wit and comedy, as well as a few genuinely scary parts, that come together for a safely packaged tour through a mildly convoluted story.

Simien (working from a script by Katie Dippold) elicits joyously committed performances from the entire cast. Every member is dedicated to the slightly goofy and gothic atmosphere without ever feeling like they’re winking at the audience or phoning it in. Each actor gets multiple comedic moments to shine, especially Haddish and DeVito, while Stanfield and Dillon also have sequences of sincere melancholy that feel earned and a natural extension of their stories/characters. The only odd element of casting is Jared Leto as The Hatbox Ghost, as it doesn’t really seem like the actor was needed. Presumably, there are extra scenes with him in it, but beyond one etching of his likeness, it’s all mocap/CGI and modulated voice that could have been filled by any number of performers. This isn’t really an issue, except that it’s jarring to spot his name in the opening credits and then never see him in any substantial way in the film proper. It’s a very minor part that is easily dwarfed by how much fun everyone else is having — an experience that becomes infectious to the viewers.

Many specific parts of the ride show up throughout “Haunted Mansion,” but it’s somewhat disappointing how much of it is computer generated. If ever there was a title that was primed for practical effects to show off “movie magic,” it’s this one. It probably won’t get noticed by much of the target audience, who are used to a deluge of CGI at this point, but if the effects were more grounded, it would make the whole affair seem like an inventive illusion that recreates the creativity of the Disney Imagineers’ accomplishments on the ride. It’s also possible that the increased use of digital effects led to a darker color coding/palette, as often happens, which is another strike against not going more practical. The computer graphics are fine, sometimes creating impressively engaging visuals (and clearly necessary for the larger sequences with multiple spirits), but it feels like a missed opportunity to take something very much rooted in a tactile representation and not translate it similarly to the screen.

Flawed though it may be, it’s hard not to have a good time with this movie. Like the theme park ride on which it’s based, there’s just enough humor and delight to ensnare even the most ardent of curmudgeons. It’s easy to be cynical about a monolithic corporation further monetizing one of its pre-existing products by creating a family-friendly cinematic adaptation that never offends while adhering to basic narrative structures, but Simien and his very talented cast never let this feel like a simple cash grab. They find ways to inject life into the characters and their stories that overcome any concern about it being nothing more than a paint-by-numbers exercise in consumerism, delivering a fun ride full of ghastly surprises, clever comedy and sincere excitement.


Starring: LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, Chase Dillon, Jared Leto
Director: Justin Simien

  • User Ratings (0 Votes)

About Author