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‘Haunted Mansion’ – a spooky Disney re-Boo!-t

‘Haunted Mansion’ – a spooky Disney re-Boo!-t
From left: Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, Tiffany Haddish as Harriet, LaKeith Stanfield as Ben and Owen Wilson as Father Kent in 'Haunted Mansion'. (Photo: Disney)

Disney’s new reboot of the 2003 theme park-ride-turned-movie serves to make up for past sins. It’s spooky, family-friendly entertainment with some famous faces and emotional depth thrown in.

Back in 2003, in an attempt to capitalise on the unexpected success of Disney theme park ride turned summer blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, Walt Disney Pictures released The Haunted Mansion. Starring Eddie Murphy, the first Haunted Mansion movie was a critically panned but moderate box office success, based on the beloved Disneyland and Magic Kingdom attraction. Now, 20 years later, after languishing in development hell since 2010, the reboot of Haunted Mansion finally materialises on the big screen, ready to haunt a new generation.

Weaving the story of the original ride around a new cast of characters, Haunted Mansion starts with mother-and-son duo Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and Travis (Chase W Dillon) moving into an abandoned mansion in New Orleans, which Gabbie “picked up for a steal”. The reason is quickly apparent, as the house is packed to the brim with ghosts, and no number of vanilla-scented Yankee Candles can combat that atmosphere. In searching for a way to exorcise the house, Gabbie gathers a motley crew of priest Kent (Owen Wilson), psychic Harriet (Tiffany Hadish), historian Bruce (Danny DeVito), and Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), an ex-Nasa scientist turned Ghost Tour guide after the recent, tragic loss of his wife Alyssa (Charity Jordan).

Haunted Mansion

Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota in ‘Haunted Mansion’. (Photo: Disney)

Haunted Mansion

Lindsay Lamb as The Bride in ‘Haunted Mansion’. (Photo: Disney)

Despite being the proverbial fish out of water, the character of Ben serves as the emotional anchor of Haunted Mansion, as his scepticism about the existence of ghosts, spirits and the paranormal clashes with the grief he hasn’t fully processed – especially considering Alyssa’s fervent belief in the same. Grief is the underlying theme of the film, which may sound heavy, but there is plenty of levity supplied by the supporting cast, especially Haddish and Wilson as Haunted Mansion’s main comic relief.

If you need one good – and completely unexpected – reason to see Haunted Mansion, it’s Stanfield’s performance. Complicated feelings of anger, sadness, connection and joy are delivered in a performance that seems too big and, at times, too real for the admittedly silly setting. It’s surprising but incredibly refreshing to see a positive representation of openly processing emotions, complete with tears, from a male character, and Stanfield delivers.

It’s not to say that layered performances and character growth are the only things happening here. After all, this is a Disney movie based on a theme park ride. And, at just more than two hours long, we’ve got a lot of run-time to fill. Haunted Mansion is as stuffed with witty dialogue, wacky hijinks and spooky (but not too spooky) scares as it is crammed with ghostly occupants. There are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, including plenty of jokes not yet spoiled by the trailers, and a hallway chase scene reminiscent of Scooby-Doo antics.

From left: Tiffany Haddish as Harriet, Rosario Dawson as Gabbie, LaKeith Stanfield as Ben, and Danny DeVito as Bruce in ‘Haunted Mansion’. (Photo: Disney)

Hatbox Ghost is voiced by Jared Leto. (Photo: Disney)

Hardcore theme park devotees will be able to spot a bunch of Easter eggs and references that others won’t, but Haunted Mansion ensures that all the fan favourites are present. Floating candelabras, moving rooms with stretching portraits, walking suits of armour, Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) and more all pop up, even if it’s only to provide a brief nod to the source material. You don’t need to be intricately versed in the lore of Disney rides to know what’s going on, but in ensuring that dozens of recognisable apparitions and locations get their share of screentime, Haunted Mansion will tax the attention span of the younger generation at which its aimed, especially towards the end.

As a film designed to deliver family-friendly fun, you’re not going to get any particularly scary moments. Though some of the ghoulish character designs might scare the very little ones in the audience, writer Katie Dippold (The Heat, Ghostbusters 2016) and director Justin Simien (Dear White People, Bad Hair) keep Haunted Mansion in solid PG territory, relying on physical comedy and a few well-placed, though well-telegraphed, jump scares. Then there’s a smattering of screen-pointing cameos to keep you on your toes.

Jamie Lee Curtis as Madame Leota in ‘Haunted Mansion’. (Photo: Disney)

Haunted Mansion is reminiscent of Jumanji, though it seems unlikely to have the same level of pop culture impact. There’s engaging mystery and authentic heart woven into a silly adventure set in an impossible reality. Simien could have pared down the action sequences and trimmed the runtime a bit, while Dippold could have tightened the story and left some extra characters out, but this didn’t detract too much from the fun time that was the end result. Overall, it’s a cute film, and pretty much exactly what one expects from the trailers. DM

This story was first published on Pfangirl.com

Haunted Mansion releases in South African cinemas on 4 August 2023.

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