Haunted Mansion, of all of Disney’s original theme park rides, has always boasted the biggest potential to be adapted into a great movie. It’s experience of trekking through a haunted house filled with incredible visuals, atmospheric horror, and a swarm of uniquely designed ghosts always felt like it could easily be translated to the big screen — if it came with the right story and was given some genuine care. Sure, Disney’s first attempt back in 2003 with Eddie Murphy had some fun nods and moments, but we all knew that they could do better.
Well, it’s an absolute joy to say that with a director like Justin Simien behind the camera, fans finally get a Haunted Mansion film that legitimately brings the ride to life on the big screen. Ironically, in a similar vein to the 2003 film, the film follows a family – single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawnson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) – as they move into a New Orleans mansion where they discover that ghosts haunt all who enter.
Instead of trying to fight off these spirits alone though, they call on some experts including paranormal photographer Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), suspicious priest Father Kent (Owen Wilson), medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), and historian Bruce (Danny DeVito) to help them break this horrible curse. Together, the group must uncover the truth behind the mansion’s terrifying past before a nefarious spirit only known as the Hatbox Ghost (voiced by Jared Leto) completes his evil plan.
What makes this Haunted Mansion film feel so authentic is how Simien pulls a lot of the ride into this film. The number of Easter eggs, characters, and actions from the ride that appear in this film is unimaginably vast and it’s like they were literally ripped off the ride and brought onto set. Some of the ghosts seen in the film are actually from the ride and harness the same visual style. The set design and unsettling atmosphere feel the same as when you’re going through the different hallways and settings of the ride. There are even more action sequences from the ride that are brought directly into this film. Those that genuinely adore the ride will be absolutely thrilled by how the film brings the ride to life and elevates the experience for the big screen.
The film is just a great representation of what the ride is – a family-friendly trek through a haunted house. Now, that can make for a bit of an underwhelming experience at times because the film is trying to be more fun than scary. Horror fans hoping that Disney and Simien have concocted a pure terror ride full of gripping thrills and scares might be a tad disappointed by the more atmospheric approach and tamer frights the film has. To be fair though, big scares and heart-stopping frights have never been what Haunted Mansion has been about and sticking to more family-friendly horror honestly makes it more like being on the ride. It’s also a big reason that Haunted Mansion is perfect for introducing much younger kids to the horror genre.
Horror fans will still come away heavily impressed by Haunted Mansion sheerly for its aesthetic and atmosphere. Some of the best parts of being in the mansion are just seeing the characters walk around and interact with some of ghouls that roam the halls. It’s awesome how these characters are not even remotely in control and are forced to deal with murderous specters and reality-bending environments at nearly every turn. The set designs here are just immaculate and even with the effects mostly being digital – which is a bummer – there are still some incredibly eerie visuals and sequences that add good suspense and a fun sense of horror. The aesthetics and technical elements of the film are so strong that you almost wish the characters and film just kind of walked around the house a little more since there can be a little too much standing and talking at times.
Haunted Mansion is a pure celebration and recreation of the iconic Disney ride on the big screen and its strengths don’t just stop with how it pays its respects. The more original aspects of Haunted Mansion shine equally as bright as the film presents worthwhile mysteries, characters, and arcs. The star-studded cast is perfect and everyone knows and thrives in their roles. Everyone brings a great comedic chemistry to mix in some light-hearted elements amongst all the horror. Not every joke hits, but the cast’s great energy and commitment to the style of the film makes the experience an incredibly fun time full of good laughs. Plus, these characters are just so much fun to be alongside throughout this intriguing mystery.
It’s really fun to see how everyone is slowly brought together and comes to understand their role in uncovering the truth behind the mansion and all the ghosts floating around. The build-up for the Hatbox Ghost as an antagonist is fantastic and the way the film focuses on his backstory to flesh him out makes for an easy to enjoy mystery that’s enticing to solve. Personally, it would’ve been nice to see some of the other ghosts be better utilized within the story just to create some intriguing lore and make them more memorable. Also, the pacing does have some noticeable drag with the events leading up to the finale. Yet, the film manages to deliver an interesting and engaging enough mystery to keep viewers locked in.
The most surprising aspect of the film’s story and characters though is how well the themes around grief and moving forward land – largely thanks to Simien’s direction and Stanfield’s performance. Ben’s personal arc in the film sees him deal with loss in a deeply real and crushing way. Right from his introduction, he’s already tugging hard at your heartstrings and his story is what keeps the emotions of the film high throughout. There’s an incredibly memorable and gutting sequence of Ben being more open about his grief that’ll nearly bring you to tears and touches on some raw feelings. It’s one of the most consistently strong parts of the entire film and the realizations that Ben has from this experience are truly heartfelt and leave a big impact. Simien’s direction really flourishes with Ben’s relatable depiction and arc and Stanfield is just phenomenal. These two did not have to go as hard and strong as they did for Ben’s story here, but fans will be so glad they did.
Haunted Mansion is a genuinely great embodiment of what makes the iconic ride so special as it boasts a horror atmosphere that is fun for all audiences and stories and characters that are equally enjoyable. There are even some emotional arcs and themes that sneak up and shock you, but that’s just because Simien’s direction and vision for this film is totally unmatched – which is what makes it such a fulfilling experience. Haunted Mansion fans can finally be treated with a film that celebrates and elevates everything great about the ride.