Classification: PG; 123 minutes
Directed by Justin Simien
Written by Katie Dippold
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson and Owen Wilson
Opens in theatres July 28
About halfway into watching Haunted Mansion, Disney’s latest attempt to reverse-engineer its theme-park attractions into feature films, I had a quick and spooky epiphany: This movie might have been just a little more fun were it to star, say, an energetic Eddie Murphy instead of a sleepy LaKeith Stanfield. Then I came to an even more terrifying realization, far scarier than any of the ghosts and ghouls depicted on-screen: There already was a Haunted Mansion movie made with Murphy released in 2003. Yes, the Mouse House has finally resorted to the ultimate act of intellectual-property grave-robbing: a reboot of a movie based on a Disneyland ride. I’ve got chills, y’all.
If that corporate ouroboros of a genesis isn’t enough to dissuade you from watching director Justin Simien’s new-ish effort, then perhaps the actual film will be, given that this Haunted Mansion is the cinematic equivalent of a fixer-upper staged to sell before interest rates skyrocket. Its intended audience – preteen children and their caregivers – won’t be so much scared as bored, while the ostensible jokes land with as much of an impact as a splash of wet and sticky ectoplasm. If this is a movie designed to ape the heart-stopping thrills of an amusement park experience, then you must be this tall to believe that anyone would want to brave a line or download the Genie+ app to experience it.
Fusing together elements of both the original ride – which can be found in Disney’s Orlando, Anaheim and Tokyo parks – and the 2003 movie directed by Rob Minkoff, Simien’s Haunted Mansion focuses on the titular structure, a manse outside New Orleans that is jammed to the rafters with the undead. This poses a particular problem for single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her young son Travis (Chase W. Dillon), who are trying to make a new life for themselves inside the house after the dissolution of Gabbie’s marriage. Unable to simply move out, Gabbie enlists the help of a motley crew of amateur ghostbusters, including goofy priest Kent (Owen Wilson), goofy psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) and decidedly anti-goofy scientist Ben (Stanfield). The actual Goofy must have already been committed to some other Disney project.
As the disparate crew attempts to clear the mansion of its spirits, they also start to uncover the home’s shady history, which centres around the malevolent Hatbox Ghost (played by – deep shudder – Jared Leto). Yet Ben is holding something back from the mission, with the hero annoyingly grumpy and unpleasantly cynical in a movie theoretically intended to be bouncy and fun. The eventual revelation of Ben’s tragic backstory – and why he ain’t afraid of no ghosts – says an awful lot about the emotional shortcuts that so many event-sized movies are forced to take in attempts to ground the ungroundable. Two very slow hours later, let’s just say that as many traumatic pasts are exorcised as ghosts.
Simien is no doubt a talented storyteller – his work on Dear White People, both the film and Netflix series, is evidence enough. But his vision here is clouded by corporate obligations and a woefully weak script by Katie Dippold, who herself is much funnier in every one of her other projects (including Parks and Recreation, The Heat and the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot). The film’s core problems are amplified by a curiously assembled cast that never gels. The somnambulant Stanfield is the prime offender, but Dawson, a quick-appearing Jamie Lee Curtis (taking over from Jennifer Tilly’s role in the 2003 film), and even the typically reliable Haddish are almost just as flat.
Thank goodness, then, for Wilson, whose performance as the world’s most stoned priest – his idea of a prayer starts with, “God, give us a break” – nearly saves Haunted Mansion from foreclosure. Just as he did in last year’s Marvel miniseries Loki, Wilson injects every one of his lines with a pleasantly chill air of relaxed wit. The actor is so strong that he almost inches the material to the dark comic heights of Beetlejuice to which the movie so obviously aspires to reach – so much so that Winona Ryder stops by for a thankless gag.
If someone at Disney wants to hit it out of the (theme) park, just pair Wilson and Eddie Murphy together for an adaptation of, I dunno, Space Mountain. Oh, who am I kidding – I bet 50 discontinued Disney Dollars that such a project is already deep in development.