With huge losses (a billion last year, half a billion in the last twelve months) and a declining subscriber base, streaming studio Disney+ has lost considerable lustre of late, and a reboot of their Haunted Mansion theme-park ride is unlikely to inspire. Here comes Justin Simien’s film anyway, based less on the forgettable 2003 Eddie Murphy comedy, but on characters established during the ride itself. With a game cast and no expense spared, it’s a fancy yet structurally mushy supernatural story for kids, one that makes little of the closer connection to the spirit world offered by the spooky New Orleans setting.
Simien’s work on Dear White People has triggered a different set of casting choices, with LaKeith Stansfield as the ghost-buster, or at least spectral photographer, who comes to aid of Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) when she and her son move into the titular building. Together with a charlatan exorcist (somehow Owen Wilson), college professor Bruce Davis (Danny De Vito) and a genuine psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), the motely crew seeks the guidance of crystal-baller Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) to lift the curse put on them by the Hatbox Ghost (kinda Jared Leto, or at least his voice and likeness, it’s hard to tell).
All that celebrity power should make Haunted Mansion a ride worth taking, and there are some surreal visuals and a few neat ideas; ‘the ghost wink’ which reminds us of those we have lost is a neat enough idea. But there are also too many groans; Gabbie’s son saying ‘Not today’ when confronted by a other-worldly manifestation he’d prefer to ignore feels like the umpteenth movie in a row via Nope and Candyman to play with exactly the same joke. With the characters unexpectedly free to leave the mansion and research their problems, there’s no oppressive feel about the central locations; ghosts can haunt the main characters pretty much anywhere, so the whole connective tissue of the narrative offers little flavour. The actors, who have been in better things, have more chemistry than most, but end up waving their arms around in front of blue screens.
Some brief cameos (Wynona Ryder and Dan Levy as tour guides) add to the feeling that there’s more talent than ideas in this specific package; plugging the Mansion backstory into New Orleans must have seemed like a good idea on paper, but Simien doesn’t do much with it other than offering up the usual ghost train visuals. Haunted Mansion isn’t a complete bust, but it’s well short of anything original; a lack of any real ambition other than to provide some knockabout fun with slumming celebs is about as high as these particular spirits get.
Haunted Mansion is out in cinemas now (Aug11th) 2023, and in the US. Thanks to Disney for access.