There is something quite sinister about Disney’s “Haunted Mansion.” No, it is not the ghoulish ghosts or haunting horrors racing through the mansion’s eerie corridors. It is the oppressive lack of originality and care placed into the House of Mouse’s latest attempt to profit off a famed attraction.
Nearly 20 years following Disney’s first “Haunted Mansion” feature, this modern revival aims to capture the iconic Disney ride’s expansive lore and spooky atmosphere. The 2003 film starring Eddie Murphy was maligned by critics and disregarded by audiences upon its release, but I always possessed a soft spot for it. Murphy’s vibrant comedic energy makes for an amusing juxtaposition against a decrepit backdrop inhabited by wicked spirits, while the expressive practical effects serve as a perfect canvas for conjuring the ride’s playful demonic entities.
In contrast, the new “Haunted Mansion” is absent of these charms. Disney has conceived yet another bloated, big-budget mess — a lazy and aimless feature that does not possess an ounce of energy or soul.
Where did it all go wrong? I would say the cardinal sin for most recent Disney failures derives from their lack of creative backbone. The studio hired director Justin Simien, the thought-provoking voice behind indie gems like “Dear White People” and “Bad Hair,” and enlisted an A-list cast loaded with dynamic personalities. The problem is; none of these talents are provided room to imprint their distinctive stamp on the material. They instead find themselves haunted by the all-too-common follies that plague modern studio films, forced to maneuver through predictable plotting and fatigued setpieces that inject little inspiration.
I feel the most for Simien, who is given the impossible task of making magic out of moviemaking malpractice. Simien’s heart is certainly in the right place. He relishes in the mansion’s lavish production design and conjures a few clever practical effect creations. I would even say Simien understands the material’s distinctive tonality, blending the material’s macabre world with lively, family-friendly exuberance. Despite Simien’s talents, his vision is ultimately masqueraded by typical Disney film misgivings.
For a film that cost $160 million, “The Haunted Mansion” looks shockingly lethargic. Injecting computer effects within practical designs continues to be commonplace in the industry, but Disney’s blending of the two relays an odd hidden valley look. Every visual here showcases drab extremes, lacking the compelling atmosphere and lively imagination needed to lure viewers into its world.
Bizarre color grading choices further magnify this issue. For some reason, a murky blue tint drowns out every scene. It looks almost like someone spilled a blue slushie over every image in the editing room.
The flatlining story only makes matters worse. Screenwriter Kate Dippold opts for an ensemble approach rather than the one-actor show the 2003 film leaned on. In practice, I like this vision.
Pairing an assortment of characters with different expertise, including a priest, a scientist, an educator and an unassuming family, inside a nightmarish environment brings some intriguing angles to the table. Unfortunately, Dippold pays minimal attention to her concept.
She populates her material with uninspired choices, cycling between lame-duck jokes, sitcom-esque melodrama and poorly-defined character beats in a consistently incoherent fashion. Every character here comes off as a charmless corpse defined by one or two uninteresting character traits. You almost have to intentionally try to zap the life out of a cast featuring Owen Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito and LaKeith Stanfield. Stanfield’s insular, character-actor skillset is glaringly misused as the bland protagonist Ben, while everyone else involved is left hopelessly mugging at the camera in desperate search of something interesting to say.
I struggle to come up with an inspired reason for why “The Haunted Mansion” exists. I assume the only genuine motivation here was following a predictable pathway — the bizarre Disney-ride-to-movie pipeline. Disney struck gold in 2003 with “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.” The film captured the Disney attraction’s swashbuckling, high-seas adventure from a bold cinematic perspective, quickly rocketing to the top of the big-budget franchise stratosphere. Since striking lighting in the bottle, the House of Mouse has cynically copied and pasted this formula onto other properties with little success (does anyone even remember “Tomorrowland” or “Jungle Cruise?”). I believe the studio is beginning to lose some prestige with mainstream audiences because they rely heavily on developing safe, easily-digestible products rather than treading new creative waters.
I could keep complaining about “The Haunted Mansion”, but I think the teenage boy who fell asleep in the seat next to me represents sufficient evidence of this film’s failures. This “Haunted Mansion” reboot is a lifeless slog. The only nightmare left lingering with me exiting the theater is thinking about a world where I am forced to watch the movie again.