With the success of translating the excitement of Disneyland Resort’s Pirates of the Caribbean into a full-fledged movie franchise, the studio then turned its attention to other attractions, hoping for the same success. The most infamous was Haunted Mansion, an attraction with a rich mythology and huge fanbase. But the film adaptation took off differently than Disney would have hoped. 20 years later, they hoped to try it again, this time with an updated story with a stronger emotional core, some lighthearted humor, nods to the ride, plenty of other easter eggs, and an ensemble cast. Though director Justin Simien, who uses a screenplay by Katie Dippold, was significantly darker and removed all of the slapstick that its predecessor had, the reboot chose a rather unfortunate summer release. As a result, it was met with a poor box office performance.
Still, an appropriate autumn home entertainment release means that fans can watch the flick over and over again. That is excellent because the rebooted Haunted Mansion far surpasses its predecessor in enjoyment and story. There’s plenty to like in Disney’s latest live-action update of one of their resort attractions. Everything ties together nicely in this story about grief and loss and how our characters process that pain and find the strength to embrace it and move forward.
In the film, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move from New York to Gracey Manor in New Orleans with plans to turn the mansion into a bed and breakfast. However, when they discover that their new home is haunted, they enlist the aid of a team of supernatural experts to help exorcise the ghosts around them. The first is Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), an astrophysicist turned tour guide who has developed a spectral lens that could capture ghost particles. The grief-stricken Ben uses his late wife’s ghost tour to find signs of his wife. Unfortunately, there’s no such luck, and soon he becomes despondent and depressed.
So when Ben is hired to capture evidence of ghosts in Gracey Manor, he doesn’t believe that Gabbie and Travis’ home is haunted. He then returns to his apartment, only to discover that one of the ghosts followed him to his apartment. The daunting task of finding what’s haunting the manor requires a motley crew of so-called spiritual experts like Father Kent (Owen Wilson), spiritual medium (Tiffany Haddish), and college professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito). Soon, everyone involved discovers that there’s much more to the house than the ghosts that are trapped in it. A mysterious reveals a sinister plan to procure several souls so that the film’s villain – the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) – can be freed from his purgatory.
Haunted Mansion puts together a film that does a great job with world-building by using the trapped souls from different eras to craft a home with a rich history. Here, the mortals are either watching the past unfold or they are literally running from it as those same souls chase them around the halls that seem to warp, bend, and twist around them. These souls have their own stories to tell. Of course, if the film had been a box office success, the sequels could have followed up on those stories and dug deeper into some of the untapped mysteries.
Simen and Dippold take plenty of cues from the rides, and the film leans heavily into the spooks that turn into some effective jump scare and surprisingly critical set pieces. Those familiar with the ride will immediately recognize the Easter Eggs. Exploring those hallways and corridors uncovers something new and exciting without having it be heavy-handed or shoehorned for the sake of acknowledging that it is a movie based on an attraction. So while some of the nods, like walls stretching the portraits to reveal a hilarious and unfortunate fate for their subjects, are there for goofs and gags, others play a vital role in moving the story forward. For example, Madame Leota is more than a medium whose spirit is cruelly trapped inside her own crystal ball. She has a back story and aids in the group’s exorcism.
Haunted Mansion’s ensemble cast is a massive plus for lightening the film’s dark and heavy themes of grief and loss. Even if the film is based on a popular attraction that strikes a delicate balance between scary and silly, the immensely talented Stanfield turns in a strong performance as his character starts out as a despondent cynic who’s lost all hope and transforms into someone who can connect with those who share his pain. But as it starts to sway away from its strengths, it veers into some strange territory. Some of the cameos and jokes feel out of place and don’t do anything to move the story forward. Winona Ryder and Daniel Levy’s cameos were meant to show that New Orleans’ haunts weren’t concentrated in one area but end up being a very confusing addition to the film. However, it becomes fun and enjoyable when it swings back into the main story.
It’s also exciting to see how Dippold expands the story beyond the mansion and turns New Orleans into a character. The original ride is located in New Orleans Square at Disneyland. Simien did a great job bringing the Big Easy into the picture through music, food, locations, geography, and the melting pot population.
And while the ensemble cast is excellent, the Haunted Mansion spreads itself far too thin by introducing new characters, giving them back stories, and justifying their roles. However, one could see what the story was trying to do by bringing in people of science, faith, magic, and a historian in a mansion filled with ghosts who died under mysterious circumstances. It does provide for some excellent banter on which trade is best at explaining the supernatural happenings. DeVito, Haddish, and Wilson fit into their roles very nicely and provide plenty of laughs for audiences of all ages. And then there’s Dawson and Stanfield, with the former being an overprotective mother and the latter moving from skeptic to believer when he sees himself in Travis.
Now, the “Haunted Mansion” home entertainment release does come with two featurettes and the obligatory deleted scenes and gag reels. “Making Haunted Mansion” dives into crafting the story, building a mythology around it, and shooting on location in New Orleans. The featurette also looks at how Disney Imagineers collaborated with production designers to turn what is essentially a dark room ride into a believable place. The surprising part of all of this is how practical the effects are and how much those practical effects are inspired by the ride itself. It’s a love letter to the ride itself and how the creatives involved wanted to stay true to the ride.
“999 Happy Haunts” is the second featurette has the Ghost Host (Paul Frees) of the Haunted Mansion attraction gives audiences some history on the spooky dark room ride that inspired the film in a way that makes it feel like you are about to board the buggy itself. There are also little bits about how the filmmakers spared no expense in recreating every detail of the ride for the movie. So expect to see those unforgettable Easter Eggs on the ride become more cinematic.
Here is the complete list of bonus features available on the digital version.
· Making Haunted Mansion (13:05) Hear from cast, crew and filmmakers about creating this grim grinning adventure based on the world-famous ride. See how the ghosts were “brought to life,” what role new technology played, and how the wildly popular attraction inspired the film’s design.
· 999 Happy Haunts (7:05) There are 999 Happy Haunts inside the Disney Parks’ attraction…but always room for one more! See all the Easter eggs (well, maybe not all of them) where characters big, small, alive, departed, human, and otherwise appear in both the movie and the ride.
Take a look at some moments that passed on before the final version of Haunted Mansion was finished:
· Carol (0:45)
· 1 Star (0:44)
· Harriet’s House Of Intuition (3:11)
· They Say The Place Is Haunted (1:16)
· Between Realms (1:42)
· Crump Manor (1:07)
· Emergency Baptism (1:01)
· A Good Head For Business (0:32)
· Who knew making a scary movie could be so funny!