Adapted from the theme park ride of the same name and acting as a remake of its 2003 predecessor, Haunted Mansion is the most faithful version to the dark ride attraction, even if it sacrifices the art of telling an enjoyable story to do so.
Starring LaKeith Stanfield, the 2023 Haunted Mansion swaps Eddie Murphy’s realtor for Stanfield’s disenfranchised tour guide and ghost-scientific expert. An expert, hired by a single mother (Rosario Dawson) and her son (Chase Dillon) to team up with other professionals: a priest, a professor, and a medium (Tiffany Haddish), to rid their New Orleans home of ghosts.
Except, where the 2003 equivalence squeezes itself into a sub-90-minute runtime, director Justin Simien, who previously worked on Dear White People, rings out any semblance of life; dragging its runtime kicking and screaming over two hours.
In its favour, expanding on its runtime allowed Simien to explore more nuanced ideas from the ride that the film is based on. For instance, the movie’s villain, a hatbox ghost, is a reference to an animatronic on the ride that had been there since its opening in 1969. Where the film differs, is that it names this ghost for the first time, Alistair Crump (Jared Leto), acting as a homage to the leading Disney Parks Imagineer behind the ride’s creation – Roland Crump.
However, spending so much of the two hours developing or expanding on the smaller moments of the ride does come at the cost of a functional story.
Going against the notion of ‘show, don’t tell’, the dialogue is excruciatingly painful, and laughably bad. As Father Kent, Owen Wilson is, unfortunately, the deliverer of the clunkiest lines. Odder still, it is hard to pinpoint the exact role of Father Kent in the film, neither serving as aid nor comic relief.
Instead Wilson is usurped by Danny DeVito as a maddened professor. DeVito, channelling Frank Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, steals the limelight so effortlessly that at every attempt, the film tries to remove him from the scene feeling threatened by his brilliant magnetism. Either by a possessed armchair throwing him out of the house, referencing the shape of the ‘doom buggy’ carriage from the ride, or by attempting to scare him to death, the film is constantly trying to save DeVito’s image and reputation from a prolonged association.
Thankfully, the idea of killing someone in the mansion has a purpose, unlike a large portion of the film’s exposition. Much like the attraction, the mansion has accrued 999 souls, including Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis). However in the film, the final soul allows Leto’s ghost to escape the realm of the mansion and haunt everywhere for eternity. But, even with 999 captured souls, Haunted Mansion is entirely devoid of spirit.
With 2003’s The Haunted Mansion having an afterlife as a popular Halloween choice for a specific generation, alongside Halloweentown and Hocus Pocus, there is a possibility that producers hoped that its contemporary would have a similar charm for a new audience. Even if it fails at nearly every hurdle.
Though with now three cinematic options available for the ride, including Muppets Haunted Mansion from 2021, there is little offered in difference for fans to choose this modern remake; aside from its hesitancy to deviate from the attraction’s (limited) storytelling or the random inclusions of cameos from Winona Ryder and Dan Levy.
For audiences who don’t frequent Disney theme parks often, The Haunted Mansion should be the superior choice for rewatches, even if not entirely accurate. But for those die-hard Disneyworld fans, they have been dying for something so precise and referential, for better or for worse.
Haunted Mansion is available to watch in UK cinemas exclusively from 11 August 2023.
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