Haunted Mansion was released to Disney+ just in time for Halloween fun. At PG-13, I’m sure many families are wondering if it’s an okay movie for their families. As a fan of the parks attraction of its namesake, a curious observer of film industry tactics and a conservative woman, I was excited and intrigued to measure the merit of the movie.
The context matters on this one:
Back in July of 2023, Disney made the absolutely baffling decision to release their brand new adaptation of Haunted Mansion based on the iconic DisneyLand and Disney World attraction. When Disney made the decision to release a clearly spooky and Halloween themed movie in the dead of summer with little to no marketing or public relations campaign and with their own Little Mermaid still screening in theaters, I knew something was up. Burying a film is a tactic studios use when they have a problem on their hands but they have a contractual obligation to release the film to the theater circuit. Disney has employed this tactic many times in the last several years as they have produced bomb after bomb after bomb.
The burial of Haunted Mansion was particularly intriguing to me. The film has a star studded cast including Academy Award nominee LaKeith Stanfield (Judas and the Black Messiah) in the starring position and Star Wars alum Rosario Dawson (Ahsoka) as his opposite. Not to mention Academy Award winner Jamie Lee Curits (Everything, Everywhere, All At Once and Freaky Friday) as the famous Madame Leota. The film features comedic legend Danny DaVito (Batman Returns) and household names like Owen Wilson (Night at the Museum) and Tiffany Haddish (Girls Trip). Jared Leto (Morbius) is in it. The movie was not cheap.
Additionally, every year the Disney parks put on a big Halloween show. They have special decor and limited time attractions and snacks and the season is becoming one of the parks division’s biggest money makers. And at the center of the fun is of course, the Haunted Mansion ride and the queen of it all is Madam Leota, the spooky but beautiful mystic whose face appears inside of a Crystal Ball during the course of the attraction.
So trying again (Eddie Murphy starred in a version 20 years ago but most agree it failed to truly capture the ride essence though it was moderately reviewed) at creating a viable film to represent the attraction in all its beloved, quirky, spooky, glory makes quite a bit of sense for Disney from a monetization perspective. They gave the movie an appropriate PG-13 rating which would allow them to embrace some of the rather dark themes of the park attraction.
So why, with a cast as bright as they had and marketing alignment perfectly primed, did Disney choose to bury this film instead of release it in October with major fanfare and park tie-in?
It wasn’t until the very end of the film that I finally saw why Disney felt the need to hide. It’s unfortunate, because if not for one short (but powerful) scene, the movie was a sensation.
The Conservative Critic, keeping in mind the major problem in the movie: Is it entertaining? Does it have intellectual/artistic value? Is it liberal propaganda?
The Conservative Critic Meter Check: Haunted Mansion
Overall Rating: Spooky, nostalgic, fun (caveat: see propaganda rating)
Overall, Haunted Mansion delivers on the exact brand of spooky, camp fun that the Disney Parks ride provides. It completely lacks identity, sometimes it’s genuinely pretty dark and others it’s fully camp complete with cartoon ghoulies pulling hijinx. In tone and in theme, it’s reminiscent of the iconic Casper of 1995. Like Casper, the set up is so ridiculous its fun, it’s pretty sad, it’s at times actually pretty dark while simultaneously managing comedy.
The film is a true homage to the Disneyland/Disney World attraction. Visually it’s a perfect match to the ride including the wall paper, the finishings, and even Dawson’s vintage inspired looks that match looks that can be found within Disney Parks.
The star studded cast does not let viewers down for even a moment. The comedy is gold, the chemistry is strong and despite a completely unbelievable and silly situation, the performances resonate as real as the characters grapple with some difficult subjects. The veteran team makes a cartoonish story more human than it even had to be.
If not for a 10 minute scene which was absolutely not necessary to drive forward the plot that included an unforgivable theme, the movie would be a sensation through and through.
Is it entertaining?
Rating: A ride not unlike the Disney attraction
The characters’ interactions with ghosts are often funny and adventurous and rarely truly frightening. Disney parks lovers will delight over the way the movie respects and pays tribute to the ride in a true ‘origins story’ fashion. As the unlikely group of characters find themselves equally tied to solving the mystery and problem of the mansion, they do so with a lot of flair, indignity and vibrance. There is nothing boring about Haunted Mansion. A few scenes might be too scary for younger kids. Some of the themes are definitely not appropriate for younger viewers (more below). But kids over 13 (per the rating) will enjoy the pompous, comedic and nostalgic ~roller coaster~.
Does it have intellectual/artistic value?
Rating: Aesthetically pleasing, well thought
The visuals in the film are spectacular. In the best way, the movie serves like one long marketing campaign for Disney parks at Halloween. From vintage looks, to color schemes, the movie is beautiful and festive in all the right ways.
The performances are even brighter. LaKeith Stanfield as the main protagonist, Ben Matthias, is grounded despite his flamboyant surroundings. Playing a widower, his grief seems legitimate and his skepticism believable. Owen Wilson as Father Kent, Danny DaVito as Bruce Davis and Tiffany Haddish as Harriet make up a dynamically funny trio with each pitch perfect in their respective comedic relief. Tiffany Haddish, in particular, really shines. Haddish has a way with delivery that has the audacity to outshine two veteran comedians with decades more on her as household names. Rosario Dawson as Gabbie and Chase Dillon as her son Travis create a charming set of haunted mansion owners that are easy to fall in love with and to root for.
The story is clever and heavily based on the story given in the Disney parks attraction but there were some weaknesses where plot tools (“and then this happened!”) were employed to drive the story forward when it didn’t otherwise move. It is also the story which includes the reason why Disney clearly back-benched the movie to hide it in plain sight.
Is it liberal propaganda?
Rating: No but they use some very bad judgment with the story
SPECIAL RATING: PROBLEMATIC STORYLINE WITH A CHILD
The propaganda isn’t liberal (though there is some crack about not trusting cops somewhere in there) but there is a really problematic story line. This is a SPOILER so do not read further if you don’t want to know anything about the plot.
This movie dangles a child suicide in the balance.
Early on in the film, themes of suicide are introduced into the story. The Disney parks attraction features suicide in a far more grim fashion than the film. In the ride there’s an adult man hanging from the ceiling of the room from where you begin. In the film, the man hanging in the Disney ride, instead poisons himself. Suicide is suicide, so I’m not sure anything has been solved, but the visual is a lot easier on our souls than hanging which is such a violent and common way for individuals to take their own life.
After the characters learn of the man poisoning himself, they find out that the evil spirit who has been collecting souls in the mansion can only achieve his maniacal plan if the last soul he collects commits suicide. A “willing soul.” Dark. Perhaps too dark. The decision to keep all the themes of suicide to me is pretty questionable considering how many other sad and scary ways there are to die. That being said, it is part of the ride and handled with kid gloves.
Alas, they didn’t stop there. Nearing the climax of the movie, the evil spirit reveals he’s tricked the characters. He wasn’t trying to convince Ben (Stanfield’s adult character) to commit suicide due to his grief, he was actually trying to convince the nine-year-old boy, Travis, to do so also because of his grief. UM WUT!
There’s a pretty disturbing scene where the nine-year-old baby child believes his father has communicated to him from the beyond and asked him to come join him. Hero Ben gets to him in time and has to convince him not to commit suicide. I might have excused this scene if it seemed like Travis was truly tricked and didn’t know his actions would result in his death. But no no, the story writers made sure that we understood Travis was well aware that if he walked into a scary fire pit thing he was for sure going to die. Ben says things to him like “you have things to live for!” And Travis argues back that, essentially, things have been really hard for him and he wishes he wasn’t alive.
TOO FAR BY A LONG SHOT DISNEY!
What’s worse is that whole suicide aside genuinely was not need for the plot to advance on its own. Had it not happened, the evil spirit would have continued his pursuit of Ben which is what happens anyway in the final conclusion.
Which explains why their new/old CEO came in, took one look at the film and buried it as deep as he could. Now just on streaming he correctly assumes the viewing will be far more casual and result in less outcry.
Setting aside the most irresponsible 10 min of film I’ve seen in a long time, it’s actually a really fun movie full of camp, spooks and respect for the beloved Disney parks ride.