It still feels like only yesterday – in reality, it was last February – that I and a few friends were standing in the center of the elongated hallway inside the second Haunted Mansion at Hollywood Studios. Between that enticing illusion, the projection-hampered ghosts, and a landscape awash in blue, the attraction left a delible core memory. And yes, the debate still rages about whether that hallway’s stretching. A newer argument now presents itself in tandem over whether the ride needed to be redone for the big screen, as Justin Simien’s Haunted Mansion prepares to step in at a slightly awkward time. Both amid the strikes, and an equally troubling cinematic identity crisis.
20 years prior, Disney’s live-action film unit saw the bright idea to adapt their notable theme park favorites into features, already stealing a runaway hit with Pirates of the Caribbean. Taking on the gothic jaunt months later with Eddie Murphy leading as a workaholic real estate agent, carrying his wife and kids along on a perusal of a top property with a spectral presence couldn’t capture a similar spark. The story was slight, but Murphy brought comic poise and director Rob Minkoff relished toying with strong practical effects. Why couldn’t Simien (Bad Hair) have at least carried over the latter against a far more distinct plotline?
Right from the get-go, he, and screenwriter Katie Dippold (Snatched) plant their flag in the heart of New Orleans, rooting firm in the city’s idea of celebrating both life and death like friendly bedfellows. And the emotional casualty tying the two, the invocation of grief, expressing it healthily without allowing it to alter our well-being. Try telling that to Ben Matthias (Lakeith Stanfield), a former astrophysicist turned paranormal specialist turned tour guide. After sudden tragedy cuts a promising relationship with supernatural enthusiast Alyssa (Charity Jordan) painfully short, the latter role has left him grumpy and jaded, insofar discrediting his work amid a cloud of drunkenness.
His never-ending pity parade grabs the attention of inquisitive Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest contacting Ben for a possible investigatory gig inside the vast, overwhelming Gracey Manor. Just sold to recently widowed mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), the inherent idea of 900-something ghosts wandering the halls was never disclosed in any documentation. Nor the warning of ghosts binding to and following anyone who steps past the front door and out. So, it does come as a shock to the pair, who’ve resorted to camping in the grand abode’s library. And who put blind trust in Ben, Kent, history professor Bruce (Danny DeVito), and amateur medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) to uncover the secret story linking the house, its dark history, and the presumed ringleader, known best as the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto).
We as the audience are placed in the same position, trusting this ensemble to take the venture at least half seriously, while affirming enough hallway space to be lively and light-hearted. Simien is quite tactful in balancing the outright scare factor with flailing comic energy. And then dropping an anvil of human honesty, bonding Ben & Travis together as allies dealing with two common foes, not just the ghoul in their purview, but a shared dissection of grieving. It is still a slightly awkward mix, hovering in and out of distinct moods without justified spate, often lingering on a beat longer than essential. Such caveats are immense enough that they can’t stay on a level keel for longer than we see.
I give some respect to Simien and Dippold for tailoring this story to adhere and thrive within the dynamics of the attraction, embracing and indirectly growing the lore, and leaving a trail of subtle easter eggs for those keen-eyed fans. And granting the Hatbox Ghost much-needed dues after a rough history in the parks. It is a welcome benefit if you know the ride, let alone lived it as a valuable part of one’s magical vacation. And in my case, got stuck on it for five minutes. Whereas 2003’s iteration had more in the way of callbacks, Simien works more with sneaking in the finer points of Imagineering’s aesthetical idea, constructively overt with the more apparent visual and sonic flourishes. The latter firm in place between Kris Bowers’ jazz-heavy score and Al Nelson’s adroit sound design.
That much is a double-edged sword, however, only furthering the challenge to stay distinct amid a studio-wide self-esteem kerfuffle. A high spending rate on these large theatrical tentpoles doesn’t always correlate to the persistence of visual quality. A film like Haunted Mansion shouldn’t cost as much as $150 million unless the justification’s valid. Simien can’t quite make the numbers work against his otherwise droll and clever idea of style. And in flashes, he does allow that to glimmer when he and DP Jeffrey Waldron (You Hurt My Feelings) take the Big Easy to heart in warm location settings, and in Darren Gilford’s (Spider-Man: No Way Home) sublime gothic interiors. However, when attempting to balance what’s real with what’s artificial, what’s genuine on set response over an excess in ill-fated CGI, the latter ultimately drown the former out, leaving the film an illusory mess better suited for high-end AR. Thankfully, we’re spared the same sort of video game engine hell seen in Pinocchio, or even Little Mermaid’s struggle to make the ocean floor appear convincing. It does the job, but not all that convincingly. The less expensive reactive skeletons Murphy faces in a detailed crypt setting had an easier go selling the viewer on looks.
At least when Leto cooks on-screen, that much is for real. A stoic yet still evil presence no matter what sort of trickery is used to convey ghostly ability. Ditto for a rather game Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota, the likely witch encased by curse in a crystal ball. Her full-throated growl and comic depth lead to firm inroads, for the limited screen time offered to her. The film might belong to Stanfield, even if his character takes a little warming up to. Likewise, to an amiable Haddish spouting rapid-fire jabs with sharp-clawed acerbity. And Wilson’s no slouch, the glue holding everyone together with relaxed wisdom and an amusingly sketchy getup. But the ultimate victor in this battle of smart quips is DeVito, by a slim margin to Wilson. A little bumbling, often prickly, but still impassioned toward his work. This side of the venerable comedian’s been missing for a while, at least on the big screen. TV doesn’t deserve him all the time.
And it’s as if Simien doesn’t deserve this film with his eye for biting hilarity and humanist storytelling. His directorial voice resonates throughout this Haunted Mansion, across every hallway and trap door. Excited to gain an advantage over the attraction in quiet ways, he does succeed in expanding its mythos, injecting an unabashed heart when dealing with the core value of grieving and reconnection. No version of the ride could ever be this heartwarming, the liveliness is still a constant no matter the version. Only when attempting to convey that same candor on a visual measure and sustain that for a full two hours does it momentarily lose me. Until then, there remains a sturdy vision in the foreground, cementing and straddling that thin line between filmmaking and mere IP mining. (B; 3.5/5)
Haunted Mansion opens July 28, previews start at 3 PM July 27; rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and scary action; 122 minutes.