Haunted Mansion is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here.
Though I went to college in Southern California, I somehow never made it to Disneyland. I had opportunities, but the only people I knew who wanted to go were planning to drop acid once they got there, and that sounded (all too specifically) like what I'd imagined Hell to be like.
I thought of that yesterday, though, sitting through the two tortuous hours of Disney's Haunted Mansion (2023). With nothing on-screen to interest me, I kept wondering whether I'd be enjoying the experience more if I were absolutely tripping balls. Frankly, I don't think it would have helped. The film is so dull, so colorless and joyless, so lacking in visual and narrative imagination, that no quantity or quality of hallucinogens were ever going to make it stimulating.
(In fact, that's kind of what the experience of watching Haunted Mansion was like: sitting there, waiting for the drugs to kick in, but gradually realizing they weren't ever going to. You thought you'd paid top dollar for a sheet of premium acid, but it turns out someone sold you discontinued postage stamps instead. The terrible gluey taste in your mouth should have been your first clue.)
Disney is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. With a full century of product to consider, I can't definitively say that Haunted Mansion is the crappiest piece of crap the House of the Mouse ever crapped out. But surely—at over $150 million—it has to be one of the venerable studio's most expensively odious dumps. There is no simply no excuse—and no obvious justification on-screen—for a film that stinks this bad to cost so much.
One can only hope and assume that the bulk of Haunted Mansion's budget went to compensate its criminally wasted cast. Rosario Dawson plays Gabbie, a former doctor and single-mother who has moved to New Orleans with her son Travis (Chase Dillon), to turn run-down Gracey Mansion into what would surely be the world's largest and least welcoming bed-and-breakfast. As she and her son are almost instantly besieged by ghosts, Gabbie recruits help (apparently from a website that must have been called something like disreputableparanormalfrauds.biz).
These dubious experts include Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a former astrophysicist who is now skeptically and sulkily running his late wife's New Orleans ghost-tour business; Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a shady priest and self-proclaimed exorcist; Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), an alleged psychic; and Professor Bruce (Danny DeVito), a local paranormal historian. Together with crystal-ball imprisoned medium Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), they attempt to deal with the Mansion's infestation of restless spirits, led by the vengeful CGI-spook The Hatbox Ghost (voiced—unrecognizably, pointlessly, and no doubt very expensively—by Jared Leto).
Shenanigans ensue, of the shittiest kind. It is honestly flabbergasting that a film with a premise this open to invention is so bereft of genuine fun and imagination, and it is unconscionable to make a cast this good go through motions this lifeless. I have not been on the Haunted Mansion ride, but I can only assume most of the tired and tepid gags and scares in Haunted Mansion come directly from it: they have an analog and obligatory feel to them, as if someone were humorously checking off an inventory list of props. The stunts and visual effects, too, feel like they are from decades earlier, except far less colorful and creative than they would have been then. (Compare this to the effects, set-pieces, stunt choreography, and/or creature-designs in something like 1984's Ghostbusters, and you would be forced to assume that Hollywood's artistic and technological skills have devolved troublingly over the past 40 years.)
I could say more, but what would be the point? Sometimes bad reviews are fun to write, but that's when there is an interesting and unusual flavor of badness to describe. Here, the badness itself is boring: it is nothing more or less than a total absence of good, a dull grey emptiness where literally anything positive—laughs, scares, thrills, romance, originality, meaning—should be. I stopped having fun with the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise about two-thirds of the way through the first movie, but in a contest of films based on Disney theme-park attractions—in terms of creativity and entertainment value—Pirates wins standing still on a wooden leg.
(For that matter, there have been two earlier movies based on the Haunted Mansion. I haven't seen either of them, but one of them—released just two years ago—has Muppets. This one has Jared Leto doing a growly voice. What more do you need to know?)
Anyway, it's a shame. I was actually excited to see Disney put a film this large in the hands of a Black director (Justin Simien) and a predominantly Black cast, and I was rooting for it to succeed. However, though I have enjoyed Simien's work (which includes creating both the film and the TV series Dear White People), absolutely nothing about it suggested he was capable of making the sort of madcap special-effects thrill-ride Haunted Mansion needed to be. (And alas, as it turns out, he was not remotely capable.) The screenplay is by Katie Dippold, who—based on the flawed but occasionally entertaining 2016 Ghostbusters—would seem to be a better fit, but one suspects this lackluster, by-the-numbers screenplay was primarily authored by Disney accountants. The cast gamely does what they can—Stanfield, in particular, puts far more effort into performing his dead-wife subplot than it's actually worth—but you can tell everyone involved knows exactly how bad this movie truly is. (I doubt they enjoyed making it any more than I enjoyed watching it, but I sincerely hope they had fun cashing their checks.)
I am sure that, despite its awfulness, Haunted Mansion will earn Disney a tidy return on their ridiculous investment: nearly everything does, these days. (The constant, shameless product placement alone should turn a profit, even if nothing else pays off.) But the film itself is a sad, shoddy, cynical corporate machine that is firing on exactly no cylinders.