There’s a fine line in family-friendly horror between spine-tingling fun and nightmare-inducing terror. It’s a line that Disney’s Haunted Mansion park attraction walks well. It’s scary, but not so scary kids can’t handle it, and the macabre aspects—like headless ghosts—are more silly than gory. Haunted Mansion, from director Justin Simien and writer Katie Dippold, attempts to hit that same tonal range while simultaneously transforming an eight-minute ride into an emotionally riveting narrative. For most part, it actually works, especially the emotional aspect of the story. But the constraints of using existing, somewhat limited IP occasionally derails their efforts.
HAUNTED MANSION ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Like Disney’s previous live-action adaptation of the ride, 2003’s The Haunted Mansion, Dippold’s script retains the New Orleans setting and several beloved characters, including Madame Leota and the Hatbox Ghost, two key inhabitants of the park attraction. Everything else is an imagined version of what might happen within the haunted walls of the titular crumbling mansion.
Years before the main story, we meet Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a scientist who doesn’t believe in the paranormal—and his certainty is unshaken when he meets Alyssa (Charity Jordan), a tour guide who gives ghost tours. But in present day, a weathered, gloomy version of Ben has taken over those tours. Alyssa, we learn, has died, leaving him in a constant state of mourning. He’s unmotivated by everything around him—until Father Kent (Owen Wilson) bursts in and offers Ben an opportunity to use a camera lens he’s invented to capture images of ghosts for a wad of cash. Ben reluctantly agrees to help Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillion), who have recently moved into the mansion, figure out why they’re being haunted.
Ben and Kent eventually enlist the help of Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a flamboyant medium, and Bruce (Danny DeVito), a local historian. Together, they discover a secret room within the mansion, where the spirit of its former owner William Gracey urges them to find Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has been trapped in a crystal orb. A shadowy figure, the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto, inexplicably), has the mansion under his control and is in pursuit of one more dead soul. It’s up to the living to stop him, which results in some otherworldly adventures that involve astral projection, car chases, and Haddish stealing every scene she’s in.
At the heart of Haunted Mansion, though, is grief. Ben is suffering from it, as are several other characters. Harriet explains that when someone dies they either move on to the afterlife, where they’re at peace, or they become trapped in the realm between. The ghosts here aren’t just funny floating entities or spooky brides with hollow eyes. They were once people with stories and hopes and love. Credit to Dippold for pushing beyond the requisite ghost concept and looking for deeper themes, even if the IP doesn’t always quite fit. The climatic ending sequence, as the group goes up against the Hatbox Ghost, reflects on why we can’t shut everyone else out when we lose someone. It’s our connections that make us stronger, a heartwarming and unexpected message (that will likely fly over the heads of younger children).
The film is not especially scary—there are a few jumpy moments—but that suits the material. Instead, Simien has created a thoughtful movie experience that feels diverse, funny and visually interesting. Those expecting an exact recreation of the ride won’t find it here, which may be for the best. Despite a few cartoon-y scenes, Simien and his cast elevate Haunted Mansion to a thoroughly entertaining and oddly emotional good time.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.