Haunted Mansion is the latest adaptation of the classic Disney ride, the first being the Eddie Murphy film that was critically panned. This new version, directed by Justin Simien, is a much stronger film than its predecessor. Instead of relying on one star, it features an ensemble cast of unlikely actors that somehow works well together. Full of action, jump scares, humor, and surprising depth, it’s a film that will be a must-watch this Halloween (which is when it should have been released in the first place).
Haunted Mansion has a simple plot: single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) are looking for a fresh start in New Orleans and move into an abandoned mansion. Naturally (and quickly), they discover that it’s haunted; this results in them hiring Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a former astrophysicist turned paranormal investigator, and a whole team of experts in order to fight the spirits. It’s what the film does with this plot that sets it apart from the first adaptation.
My biggest critique of the film, aside from not releasing it in October, is a common critique as of late with big-budget projects: the visual effects. At the beginning of the film, they are very strong and effective. Once we start to get more ghosts on screen, it becomes more chaotic and weaker. Jamie Lee Curtis never looks quite right as Madame Leotta in her crystal ball; Jared Leto’s Hatbox Ghost completely works up until his full reveal, where he immediately goes from scary to cartoonish. I completely understand that VFX studios are overworked and underpaid, which makes studios’ commitment to releasing projects with subpar effects disheartening.
While the mansion itself is owned by Gabbie, it’s Ben who is the heart and soul of the film. LaKeith Stanfield gives a strong and surprisingly emotional performance that makes this film so much better than I anticipated. Ben, along with Gabbie and Travis, are going on the same journey in their lives: processing grief. I haven’t seen a Disney film tackle the subject like this since Coco; it was unexpected but very refreshing.
The ensemble cast is filled with great performances from top to bottom. Owen Wilson is great as Father Kent, who helps inspire Ben to join the team. Danny DeVito is a scene stealer as Professor Bruce, though he has some competition with Chase W. Dillon as Travis. Tiffany Haddish also has some great emotional moments as Harriet, the psychic/medium of the team.
Jamie Lee Curtis and Jared Leto do their best as Madame Leota and the Hatbox Ghost, but unfortunately, their performances are hindered by the VFX. That being said, I loved the respect paid to the characters as well as the ride itself throughout the film. We also get some fun cameos as well, one being Hasan Minaj as a police sketch artist in one of the funniest scenes in the film.
Overall, I would say that Haunted Mansion is a must-see in theaters this weekend (if you haven’t seen Barbie or Oppenheimer yet). If you decide to wait and watch it for the first time around Halloween, I think you’ll get more out of the scary elements. It’s still a wonderful adaptation of the ride, filled with Easter Eggs galore for true Disney fans. Haunted Mansion has a terrific cast that deserves recognition, especially LaKeith Stanfield. I look forward to seeing the film again and the role it will play in helping families begin discussions on grief and loss with their children.