Two decades ago, Disney began experimenting with transforming their iconic rides into movie adaptations, with varying degrees of success. They initially started this unique journey in 2002 with ‘The Country Bears,’ an unusual choice, followed by adaptations of two of their major attractions in 2003 – ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’ and ‘The Haunted Mansion.’ While ‘Pirates’ splendidly echoed the essence of the ride, becoming Disney’s most successful live-action franchise, ‘The Haunted Mansion,’ starring Eddie Murphy, could not fully encapsulate the allure of the original ride, despite decent box office performance.
Fast-forward twenty years, Disney takes another shot at cinematically recreating one of their beloved rides, this time under the creative leadership of ‘Dear White People’ director Justin Simien, who incidentally has experience working at Disneyland during his film school days, and ‘The Heat’ writer Katie Dippold.
A Stellar Cast Lightens Up the Spooky Atmosphere of ‘Haunted Mansion’
Rewind to the early 80s, when Disney had taken a bold step towards the grim and eerie, releasing flicks such as ‘The Watcher in the Woods’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, which were unsettling enough to give the younger audience quite a scare. The same generation of kids is now parents, likely wondering if they can trust Disney with their little ones’ fragile psyche with movies like ‘Haunted Mansion’.
But fret not, as this PG-13 rated Disney production, a second iteration of the scary theme park attraction, is not as terrifying as one might imagine. Directed by Justin Simien of ‘Dear White People’ fame, the movie relies more on humor than horror. The plot revolves around a witty group of characters who tackle the phantom menace in Gracey Manor.
The humorous approach of the movie certainly takes away the sting that one might feel when recalling the 2003 version featuring Eddie Murphy, which couldn’t quite stand up to that year’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl’. Now, in this new era, it seems every Disney creation is haunted by the ghosts of its predecessors, as the studio continually finds ways to reinvent its existing intellectual properties.
Disney’s Homage to ‘Haunted Mansion’ – A Ride Through Nostalgia
‘Haunted Mansion’ successfully borrows elements from the theme park ride, infusing clever sight gags and imaginative specters, loved by the parkgoers, and weaving them into a captivating standalone narrative. Although the visuals may lack the usual Disney splendor, the movie’s script, penned by ‘Ghostbusters’ writer Katie Dippold, more than makes up for it.
The narrative offers an emotional depth, transforming what could have been another gimmick-laden haunted house flick into something more substantial. A skeptical astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) meets a woman (Charity Jordan) who embraces the supernatural world. Their love story ends in tragedy, leaving Ben as a grieving alcoholic, only to be saved by an eccentric priest, Father Kent (Owen Wilson).
The plot further thickens as Ben’s scientific acumen is sought to identify the ghost plaguing Gracey Manor, a colossal Louisiana house with a complex past. A single mother, Gabbie (Rosario Dawson), and her 9-year-old son, Travis (Chase Dillon), who are still mourning a personal loss, also become part of this spectral adventure.
‘Haunted Mansion’ – A Love Letter to the Original Theme Park Ride
Despite the escalating demand for CGI as the plot unravels, and an influx of characters joining the ghost-hunting troupe, the movie’s early ghostly illusions prove effective. Director Simien pays homage to the original Disneyland ride, incorporating elements from his summer job at the park during film school.
Yet, as the movie progresses and requires more intricate CGI, the visuals seem somewhat overwhelmed. Thankfully, the sound design by Al Nelson provides an essential boost to the overall ambiance. While some visual effects, like the depiction of mystical Madame Leota (Jamie Lee Curtis) as an apparition superimposed on a crystal ball, and the headless Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto), appear a tad underwhelming, the movie’s humor shines through. A particular scene involving Stanfield and Danny DeVito describing the Hatbox Ghost to a sketch artist brings forth genuine laughs.
However, the more the narrative leans on specters, the less engaging it becomes. Simien introduces a few optical illusions, reminiscent of the ride’s trompe l’oeil antechamber, yet their execution is less impactful than their concept. Amidst the comic bickering, Ben and Travis add a solemn tone, highlighting Disney’s essence — a heartfelt message about dealing with the loss of loved ones.
‘Haunted Mansion’ respects their grief while also aiming to put a smile on the audience’s faces. It’s a classic Disney touch, making us realize that even in the darkest moments, there’s room for joy and laughter.
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In conclusion, ‘Haunted Mansion’ is not just a revival of the past but a perfect blend of humor and emotional depth, beautifully capturing the spirit of the original ride. It reminds us why we fell in love with Disney in the first place, a fitting tribute to the beloved theme park attraction.