Written by: Matt Patti | July 27th, 2023
Haunted Mansion (Justin Simien, 2023) 2½ out of 4 stars.
20 years after the release of Disney’s original The Haunted Mansion comes a film with a similar title but a different premise. Director Justin Simien’s 2023 Haunted Mansion takes inspiration from the classic Disney ride, as did the 2003 film. However, Simien’s film follows a much different storyline, taking the plot in a new direction. Humorous and heartwarming, Haunted Mansion is a welcome fresh take on the concept.
In the new film, Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield, Sorry to Bother You) is a tour guide in New Orleans with low drive and little joy in life. He is best known for the invention of a device capable of capturing photographs of spectral phenomena, though the product didn’t take off as he’d hoped. Others claim that the camera Ben invented takes photos of “ghost particles,” but Ben himself doesn’t actually believe in ghosts.
One day, Ben receives a knock at his door from Father Kent (Owen Wilson, Disney+’s Loki series) who offers Ben a chance to be a hero by using his invention to help a family experiencing hauntings. At first reluctant, Ben accepts when money is offered. The two arrive at a large, creepy mansion where Ben meets Gabbie (Rosario Dawson, The Water Man) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon), who have recently moved into the house and are tormented by the many spirits within.
Ben is skeptical at first, but soon realizes that Gabbie and Travis have a real ghost problem. Soon, Ben, Father Kent, and the family are joined in the mansion by a historian (Danny DeVito, Jumanji: The Next Level) and a psychic (Tiffany Haddish, The Kitchen). Together, the group tries to unearth the mystery of why so many spirits are in the house and why they won’t leave.
Though Gabbie and Travis are the catalyst for the plot, our main focus in Haunted Mansion is actually on Ben. He’s the film’s most compelling character, with a dark past and relatable feelings. Ben functions as both the voice of reason and also the film’s emotional epicenter, and LaKeith Stanfield turns in a fantastic performance, exhibiting quite a bit of range, throughout.
The other characters fit into their roles well, and offer distinct personalities that are fun to see come together. The performances from most of the supporting cast are also quality, most notably Haddish as the hilarious but inexperienced psychic, Harriet. The lone slightly sour spot is Owen Wilson’s Father Ken, who acts much more like a stock Owen Wilson comedy character than a priest. I often find that Wilson plays almost the exact same character in every film he’s in, and sadly that seems to be the case here, as well.
The plot of Haunted Mansion offers humorous scenes as well as deep, emotional moments, some spooky stuff, and a bit of action and adventure, too. With all those elements coming together, the film’s tone is a bit all over the place. Still, it pulls off all of those elements well, and they all nicely come together in the film’s conclusion.
The set design and visuals are exceptional, creating a fun but creepy atmosphere, throughout. The ghost design is intriguing, as certain aspects of some spirits look quite terrifying for a Disney film (albeit one with a PG-13 rating). However, the score of the film squashes any suspense that could have been achieved through the designs, as the soundtrack is a bit too cheesy and whimsical to truly inspire any fear. Simien (Bad Hair) doesn’t seem to be going for terror, though, as he and writer Katie Dippold (Snatched) instead focus more on the annoying aspects of a haunting, which is admittedly an intriguing change of pace.
There is one large issue with Haunted Mansion, unfortunately, that does detract from it quite a bit. Information is gained far too quickly and easily in several scenarios, mainly through overly long explanations that are simply told to our characters. Instead of these exposition dumps, it would be nice to see characters figure things out on their own through discovery.
Overall, though, Haunted Mansion is a fine adaptation of the beloved Disney attraction. I do enjoy this film a tad more than the 2003 one. With a standout performance from LaKeith Stanfield, compelling characters, a good balance of laughs and emotional depth, and exceptional set design, the 2023 Haunted Mansion does just enough right to satisfy the audience and stands out from the previous version.