Review: Haunted Mansion (2023)

It must be easier to turn a hit movie into a theme park ride than it is to turn a beloved ride into a film. Maybe that's why there are many great theme park rides based on movies, but so few great movies that started life as a ride. Goodness knows Disney has tried. For decades, Disneyphiles have begrudgingly supported movies like Tower of Terror and Country Bears out of a sense of loyalty, despite diminished returns. The list of ride-to-film adaptations is surprisingly long, including The Jungle Cruise, Mission to Mars, and even Tomorrowland, which isn't a ride at all, but an entire area within the Disney parks. For every Pirates of the Caribbean, there's a movie that didn't quite work. Disney first attempted to adapt their famous haunted house dark ride into a film with 2003's The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy. That version is not without its charms, but it failed to capture the spirit (wink wink) of the attraction that many fans--including myself--name as their favorite. 

Which brings us to 2023's Haunted Mansion. With an ensemble cast consisting of LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Jared Leto and a story that leans heavily into the New Orleans setting that has been connected to the ride for over 50 years, the latest attraction adaptation is a huge step up in terms of both storytelling and fun factor. 

Put on your Mickey ears, we're headed back into the parks for a little history. The Haunted Mansion started its afterlife as an ambitious dark ride, nothing more and nothing less. But over the years, a mythology began to develop that connected disparate elements such as Master Gracey, Madame Leota, Constance the Bride, and later, even the Hatbox Ghost. A more cohesive story--albeit a loose one that lends itself to different interpretations--began to take shape. There was even a 2016 Marvel Comics series that took a stab at creating a canon mythology, perhaps paving the way for this film. That's what makes 2023's Haunted Mansion a success for me: it takes the elements that I love from the ride, expands them, and connects them to relatable themes of grief and loss. The fun thrills that I crave are here, but they're anchored by real human emotion and drama. 

Not everything works. Owen Wilson and Danny DeVito both feel like they've been carried over from a previous version of the script without much reason to be there. Also, Jared Leto fans (my wife among them) will be disappointed by his lack of screen time. Like so many movies in this corporate age, Haunted Mansion is a film that feels as if it has many different masters, pulling it in several directions. Furthermore, with a running time of 123 minutes, the film is too long; my cynicism makes me wonder if the length was set long before the picture was finished to boost "streaming minutes watched," which is the current way of calculating whether a project was a success or not. Even this movie's mid-summer release date of July was a throwaway, since Disney's ultimate goal was to have it on the Disney+ streaming platform in time for Halloween. The marketing has been inconsistent and the poster is aggressively awful. None of that matters when your ultimate goal is to bring in streaming subscriptions, I suppose. One more thing: directing duties are handled by Justin Simien, who connected with audiences via his independent, small-budget film Dear White People. Simien is a young director with an authorial voice and something to say, but with this 150 million dollar film, he's been absorbed into the corporate machine. We've lost another one, folks. 

Maybe it was my lowered expectations, maybe it's my devotion to the ride itself, but I really enjoyed The Haunted Mansion. Oh, it certainly has flaws, but it also has a lot to appreciate, like wonderful set designs and the eerie-yet-silly vibe that is so hard to capture. For Disney Parks aficionados like me, there are easter eggs galore all throughout the film. I'm especially grateful that the movie manages to wrap everything I love about The Haunted Mansion attraction into the most cohesive story that's ever existed. It's all there: 999 haunts, Gracey and Leota, Constance, The Hatbox Ghost, even the song "Grim Grinning Ghosts;" but instead of being disparate and tangential, they're all connected now in a way they never were before. 

In an age where Disney movies and shows increasingly feel like "product" instead of magic, Haunted Mansion stands out for me as the best of both worlds. For Disney fans, it's faithful to everything we love about the attraction; however, faithfulness alone doesn't make for a good film. For that, we need compelling characters on a strong narrative arc with themes that resonate. Some of the characters in this movie feel superfluous and the arc gets muddled, but the themes remain strong and help to overcome some of the movie's shortcomings. Initial reviews for Haunted Mansion skew toward negative, but I think this movie will find its audience over time. After all, kids don't care what critics think. While it doesn't soar to the same heights of the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, I'm putting Haunted Mansion near the top of my "attractions to movies" list. 


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