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Silver Screen Studies: ‘Haunted Mansion’ Review: Disney Delivers Slightly Spooky Family Fun


Lane Mills
Herald Staff

SYNOPSIS: A woman and her son enlist a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts to help rid their home of supernatural squatters.

The category is films based on rides at Disneyland; the entries, in addition to the most obvious “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, include “Jungle Cruise”, “Mission to Mars”, and “Tomorrowland”, a group that has now been joined by the 2023 remake of “Haunted Mansion”, a reboot of the original adaptation that released in 2003. That film is one many prefer to leave off the aforementioned list.

This year’s more modern take on the mansion looked to be more faithful to the beloved theme park attraction of the same name, whilst also redeeming said name on the big screen. Director Justin Simien, who once worked at Disney World, said that “a day there was not complete without Haunted Mansion” in an interview with Yahoo. With the shoot reportedly taking more than 100 days to complete, the final product was no less than a labor of love for the director.

The resulting two-hour, on-rails ride through the new Haunted Mansion is, above all else, very fun. It earns its rebooted existence by taking an all-star cast and stuffing the screenplay with constant gags for them to deliver; not every single one lands, but the sheer number guarantees more than a few hits. The biggest comedic highlights are Owen Wilson as a “priest” and Danny Devito’s turn as a crotchety old man with heart issues. Some of the resulting gags are unforgettably gut-busting, and the pair successfully offset the negative effects of the occasional mistimed zinger.

On top of the laughs, the spooky visuals and creepy color palette make for a pleasing visual experience. The dominant purples, greens and oranges qualify this film as a candidate for an annual October viewing, and the blue-hued ghosts and ghouls stand out against the dark backdrop, adding a ghastly layer to the aesthetic. The overuse of CGI does hamper the impact of a few sequences, specifically the action centric ones, but Simien mostly makes up for it with a select few bits of inspired camera work and staging. The best of these will likely scare children and entertain adults; “Haunted Mansion” serves as a good medium in multiple ways.

Adults will have a fine time taking their kids to this one, with plenty to keep them engaged, and children will have a chance to experience something horror-ish, perhaps for the first time. The original “Haunted Mansion” film, even for all its flaws, is still known as a segue into the horror genre for kids, and the new film is no different. It doesn’t go quite as far as the first film did in that regard, but suffices still.

The film’s main villain, the legendary “Hatbox Ghost”, is the best example of both the film’s worst issues and greatest triumphs. In design, he’s terribly hair-raising; his sunken jaw, long, malicious smile and complete lack of a nose and eyelids make for a one-of-a-kind look.

But the film takes that look and relies completely on visual effects to make it work, which, essentially by default, makes the dead man significantly less scary than he could have been. It works on occasion, but the character often manipulates his surroundings to channel himself into them, the worst of which being a cartoony rendition of his face into the hatbox. It’s his introduction in the film, and after some intense build-up, all tension is lost on the goof look of his animated appearance.

These sorts of visuals often collide with the intricate set design, leading to a muddled vision of precision and chance. “Haunted Mansion” is never really consistent in any manner. When it’s trying to move you, it’ll insert a product placement (many of which infest this film) and kill the emotion. Similarly, scares are often undercut for lazy jokes that deflate the pressure the scene had been building. The film never quite fully capitalizes on anything.

Yet, it still manages to round off with a finale that commits to a purpose in full, and thus ends the adventure on a needed high-note. “Haunted Mansion” isn’t going down as a Disney classic by any means, but for a family night out at the movies, it’s fitting. Halloween lovers will be spooked and everyone is going to laugh. Perhaps another twenty years down the line we’ll get another “Haunted Mansion” reboot that finally gets it all right. Until then, this should be enough for most.

SCORE: 6/10

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