|Synopsis||Based off the Disney theme park ride, a group of experts in the paranormal must band together to rid a haunted mansion of an unknown evil presence.|
|Length||2 hours, 3 minutes|
|Release Date||28 July, 2023|
|Distribution||Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Disney+|
|Starring||LaKeith Stanfield, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish, Danny DeVito, Chase Dillon|
When it comes to cinema, October is usually dominated by films that exploit the spooky vibe of the season. It’s a prime month for studios to dump their horror films onto their allied streaming platforms. As such, there’s not much out for children at the moment. It’s difficult to find family-friendly content, let alone something that can safely scratch that Halloween itch for young viewers, should one wish to engage with the holiday.
Disney is a brand that’s usually associated with family-friendly content, although the company has faced extreme criticism as of late. The Star Wars franchise is uninspired, the MCU has been accused of succumbing to identity politics, while the constant live-action remakes of classic films has caused many to see the act as not a creative endeavour, but rather a lazy cash grab.
Enter Haunted Mansion. It’s in a weird category in that it’s not exactly original content, yet it’s not as painfully overdone as some of Disney’s other IPs and franchises. Given the company’s latest stumbles, is this yet another slip towards total decline, or is it a step in a positive direction?
Violence/Scary Images: This is a film adaptation of the titular Disney theme park ride; it features a haunted mansion filled with ghosts, some good, some evil, but tonally it’s not aimed at adults but for a slightly younger audience. Frequent discussion about death, sometimes hinting about the topic of suicide. Ghosts are cartoonish but some appear more ghoulish than others. Multiple jump scares. Characters are thrown in front of traffic. A ghost tries to repeatedly decapitate others with an axe. Characters are hunted down throughout the house by an evil spirit. A crocodile tries to bite people. Some gun violence. No blood; gore is light.
Language/Crude Humor: No course language, aside from expressing some anger. Sometimes characters will mock each other.
Drug/Alcohol References: Alcohol is consumed by some characters, some to build “courage”, whereas others abuse it as a way to cope with trauma/depression.
Sexual Content: None.
Spiritual Content: One character calls himself a priest, although there is no Christian content outside of that Catholic position. There are plenty of occult references, with some characters specialising in communing with the dead, using spells, performing seances, and there’s a reference to a Ouija board. The entire film is about the afterlife and ghosts, taking on a Pagan/secular perspective.
Other Negative Content: Characters initially lie and deceive each other.
Positive Content: The film offers a decent look on the topic of grief and suggests healthy ways to engage and unpack those heavier emotions.
The theme parks are a big part of Disney’s identity. If you’ve never been to one, then they’re not your typical adrenaline-junkie attraction filled with g-force building, blood-draining, bone bashing, rough rollercoasters that litter many other theme parks worldwide. Instead, the Disney theme parks are insanely popular because they master a niche in the market; they offer smooth, first-class immersive experiences. With a lot of the attractions in the park, when you hop on a ride, it’s like you leave the real world and for a moment pop into the realm of somewhere else.
When it comes to classic Disneyland, there are number of rides that explore Disney’s early filmography, most of which are located in Fantasyland, one of the themed sections of the park map. But then are some classic, long-standing popular rides that aren’t based on a movie at all. Such as Frontierland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, or Tomorrowland’s Space Mountain, to name a few. Since they already have the ride, it makes logical sense when searching for fresh movie ideas that they simply take what they already have and build a film narrative that’s inspired by the attraction. Like a comic book or game adaptation, these are ride adaptations, which correct me if I’m wrong, seem to be unique to Disney at this stage. They found wild success when it came to adapting Pirates of the Caribbean, but only mediocre returns for their films based off Tomorrowland and Jungle Cruise (and then there are the absolute failures like The Country Bears).
This is the second time they’ve tried to adapt the Haunted Mansion into a movie, the first being in 2003 starring Eddie Murphy. It’s a film that doesn’t stick out in my mind and actually might be worthy of a revisit, but suffice to say, it was very average and didn’t have any staying power unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean films. But it’s easy to see why the Haunted Mansion attraction has earned itself two film adaptations—it’s one of the best rides in the park! It offers an incredibly immersive experience that stuns visitors with its visual illusions and entertains with it catchy theme song, supplying a wonderful mix of creepy yet fun. It’s a relatively fast-loading yet satisfyingly lengthy ride that is filled with so many iconic moments; there’s the pre-show—the stretching room, the ballroom, the graveyard, the hitchhikers, the bride, the head in the crystal ball, the statues that follow your movements, the floating candlestick… there’s so much to visually soak in and enjoy.
It’s clear the 2023 film is a faithful adaptation of the ride, as it tries its best to marry in as many references to the attraction as possible. Yet it’s also one of its flaws, since all the fan service leads to a bloated narrative. The 2003 The Haunted Mansion movie also made the same mistake. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl succeeded because it merely adopted the vibe of the ride and directly referenced only a handful of things, as opposed to these Haunted Mansion movies where there’s seemingly greater pressure to cram in as much as possible, as though dropping an element or two will incite anger from fans.
There are a few side effects as a result. While it’s true that 2023’s Haunted Mansion doesn’t tell a simple story, the narrative that it does weave ultimately feels rather epic. If its mission is to include everything in the ride, then it tells the best story that it possibly can. If Salem’s Lot is a lengthy vampire tale touching upon every piece of lore you could hope for in one sitting, then Haunted Mansion feels like the haunted house equivalent.
The haunted house subgenre is rather lacking at the moment, with only a few standouts over the past few years, including Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House (which really only made a name for itself due to one particular episode that impressed viewers with its creepy use of predestination). Otherwise, this subgenre is very stock-standard with its tropes. Doors slam shut. Noises are heard. Items move on their own. It’s the third act where these films really start to differ from each other, and most stumble at the end. Haunted Mansion does struggle throughout its runtime, mostly because it lacks the finesse to build the proper tension to deliver decent jump scares (I mean, did we really believe that Disney could produce a horror film?). But unlike others in the genre, once it gets going and finds its footing with the tone, the less it tries to follow the cliches, the better.
Haunted Mansion, while flawed, must be commended for doing something a little different. It displays more creativity as to why people must come back to the house (as opposed to literally being locked inside). It’s a refreshing conundrum that inadvertently allows its cast more freedom and more settings to explore outside of a dreary mansion. Yet it still ticks a lot of the cliché tropes of the subgenre, if that’s what you’re looking for as well. In many ways it operates as a spoof, much like how Scream parodied slashers whilst still being one itself.
A lot of critics have slammed the film for its rather convoluted plot and its runtime that enjoys its own ability to keep running, but I honestly had fun watching this one. The actors are all having a blast! Owen Wilson delivers the same type of performance he always seems to phone in, but he is still entertaining anyway. Danny DeVito and a surprise appearance by Jamie Lee Curtis is always welcome, while the rest of the cast, including lead actor, LaKeith Stanfield, easily carry the rest of the narrative on their shoulders. Coming in at over two hours, Haunted Mansion feels like a breeze considering it’s a longer than average film, thanks to the rapport that is developed amongst the cast.
Yet despite its source material and goofy and parodic nature, it’s not exactly child friendly. The stakes are still pretty high, and characters are frequently placed in tense life and death situations, such as suddenly being flung in front of high-speed traffic. One scene in particular plays out like that of an adult horror film, where a ghost actively tries to decapitate a character with an axe. It’s a level of malicious violence that is not typically seen in a family-friendly context, so viewer beware.
It’s not the greatest Disney film in existence, but it’s a shame that it has been largely overlooked as it truly is a fun romp. Its lack of box office attention is ironic given that Haunted Mansion delivers what a lot of people said they wanted; an original tale with proper racial representation. For once Disney made decent casting choices that made sense for the story, as opposed to inserting identity politics in a narrative that made such tokenistic motivations painfully obvious and detrimental to the project.
As such, Haunted Mansion is a fine film.
At least, that’s what my inner film critic would say…
Haunted Mansion is also one of the few movies out there that has me split between film appreciation and my Christian beliefs.
As a Christian, I actually cannot recommend this film.
In Haunted Mansion, the group of characters operate as an Avengers-esque ragtag team that’s representative of the subgenre. For instance, Owen Wilson plays Father Kent, a Catholic priest—a role that’s usually present in these types of ghostly movies. Then there’s the scientist, the historian, the exasperated owner, the spirit medium, and so forth. Each have their archetypal role to play.
Except it’s clear that Disney has no idea what to do with Father Kent. He doesn’t rebuke the spirits, say prayers, reject the occult, or do anything in the name of Jesus. He’s basically just Owen Wilson being Owen Wilson. It’s as though the screenwriter wanted the presence of a priest but still wanted to keep things secular, but that’s not how things work when it comes to battling the forces of evil. To be fair, there is a very good reason provided within the plot as to why Father Kent takes a laid-back approach, except it still doesn’t absolve the fact that the story is literally pretending to have Christian representation when there actually isn’t any at all.
It’s this type of representation which is the most dangerous. If it was instead overtly anti-Christian, then at least in that scenario it’s more obvious to viewers where the bias lands and therefore audiences can appropriately discern and pushback against incorrect lessons. Yet Haunted Mansion lulls with its sense of innocence and good-natured humour. Father Kent seeks out the help of spirit mediums, agrees with the performing of occult practices, and even takes part in seances and other activities that would be otherwise egregious to those with his faith. Adult Christians that have walked for a while in their faith will know this is not right, however, Haunted Mansion is targeting a younger demographic; an age group that won’t have had the chance to develop enough worldly wisdom to know what is acceptable in spiritual battles, the importance of the armour of God, and how not to approach those things that prowl in the darkness. Haunted Mansion shows a man of God participating and even condoning a séance, and that’s not okay.
It puts Christian parents in a tough spot. If your child is old enough to handle the scarier elements of the film, it feels like overkill to ban watching the movie entirely, as when they inevitably do view the film as a rebellious act, the story is innocuous enough to create confusion as to why it’s a problem in the first place—all that will be gained is a rift between the child and parent bond. Instead, if a child is of the right age, a better approach might be to watch the film alongside them, then use the material to engage in a discussion. Help them in their walk of faith to discern the good lessons from bad, and equip them with the skills needed for adult life. Unless this approach is taken, I cannot in good faith recommend this film for younger audiences, as there’s a good chance they won’t have the experience needed to unpack the film and discern what’s a humorous piece of fiction, and what’s a detrimental viewpoint on the afterlife.
Haunted Mansion: it’s a fun film, but watch at your peril.
+ Faithful adaptation of the ride.
+ Fun cast.
+ Gets a bit epic.
- Not really suitable for kids.
- Christian misrepresentation.
- Bloated narrative.
- Fails to build tension when required.
The Bottom Line
Haunted Mansion is far from the best movie in Disney’s catalogue, but provided viewers use discernment regarding its treatment of the supernatural, it can be a fun ride.