I visited Disneyland dozens of times while growing up in Southern California. It was the #1 destination for our visitors, school trips, and even my high school marching band. While the park has grown and evolved over the years, two rides at the amusement park have remained my favorites: Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. What most avid fans don’t realize, however, is that the Haunted Mansion ride has an actual backstory and there’s a logic to the sequence of scenes in the famous ride. Plus, who can resist those creepy Doom Buggies?
Disney already turned Pirates of the Caribbean into an extraordinary film franchise, thanks to the foppish Johnny Depp, who starred as the good hearted, but perpetually drunk Captain Jack Sparrow. The first film in that series, Curse of the Black Pearl, is one of the best whimsical action movies of the modern era and holds up very well to repeat viewing. But even with its backstory, the Haunted Mansion has been a tougher adaptation. Disney tried by leaning on the charm and charisma of Eddie Murphy in its 2003 adaptation of the same name, but it wasn’t very good, ended up based on the backstory of the Disneyland Paris version of the ride, and ultimately fell flat, hovering at a miserable 5.1 on IMDb.
Director Justin Simien (most notably director of Dear White People) had another vision for the story, however, and with the help of writer Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters, Parks and Recreation), offers up a new and far more engaging story that is so heavily intertwined with Haunted Mansion ride lore that it’s really a love letter to the ride and its Imagineer developers. It has hundreds of Easter Eggs that devoted ride fans will catch – cinematic Hidden Mickeys! – from paintings to sculptures, musical riffs to the inscriptions on tombstones.
The story revolves around newly single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her nerdy 9yo son Travis (Chase Dillon), who have purchased an abandoned mansion deep in the swamps of Louisiana. Haunted? Of course, it’s haunted, as they quickly realize. They skedaddle with alacrity, but once you step foot in the mansion, the ghosts inhabiting it are going to stick with ya. Gabbie and Travis end up back in the Mansion and build a team of misfits and con artists including the charming Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), nutty priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), testy professor Bruce (Danny DeVito), and otherworldly psychic Harriet (Tiffany Haddish).
They eventually realize that the mansion is haunted by a Master Gracey, whose heart is permanently broken because his beautiful fiancée died the night prior to their wedding. Back in the day, he hired well-known medium Madam Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) to contact his bride, but seance after seance, they never succeeded. What they did instead was open up the Mansion to hundreds of spirits and the evil spirit’s leader, The Hat-Box Ghost (Jared Leto). Chaos ensues and the crew has to work together to prevent Hat-Box from achieving his nefarious objective and being able to escape the Mansion and haunt other locations.
The film is very well assembled, with top-notch special effects and great exterior shots of New Orleans and a creepy mansion (located in Georgia, not Louisiana, but that’s the movies for ya). All the best physical effects created by the Imagineers who built the theme park ride show up in the film too, though likely as digital effects. The performances are also good, with a shout-out to young Chase Dillon who delivers a surprisingly effective performance in an era when most child stars can’t emote if their careers depended on it. Stanfield is also an interesting character, wrestling with his deep grief over the loss of his beloved wife, an obvious parallel to the pain Master Gracey suffers from with his own tragic backstory.
The film is somewhat intense in scenes, making it likely unsuitable for the very youngest members of the family (it is rated PG-13). For people familiar with the amusement park ride, it’s a joy to play “spot the homage” because it really never ends. From elevator rides to two-faced paintings, crystal balls with secrets within to the decorations on the Mansion walls, the filmmakers clearly studied every aspect of the ride and used as many as they could squeeze in.
But… while it’s entertaining, Haunted Mansion could also easily have been a straight-to-video release, appearing on DisneyTV as the new Wendy and Peter Pan film did just a few months ago. There’s nothing that really requires the big theater screen in the cinematography and it might be even more effective in a dark home TV room. This is a dilemma for the decade that we see come through again and again: Release content direct to streaming, release it simultaneously to streaming and theaters, or have a theatrical-only release? Haunted Mansion is entirely entertaining and enjoyable, but this review can’t help but think it’d be fine for you to wait until it does show up on DisneyTV to watch it.