Writhing in Development Hell, a term Hollywood uses when a project is stuck in limbo for too long before it is either abandoned or greenlit, can be a death knell for a project. Fortunately, Disney’s Haunted Mansion was eventually greenlit, and audiences will see the results at your local multiplex this weekend.
Considering that the project had been gestating since 2010, with Guillermo del Toro attached at one point, Justin Simien’s directorial effort is the third movie to bear the name, based on an adaptation of a Walt Disney theme park attraction.
What works in Haunted Mansion is LaKeith Stanfield’s performance as the dubious Ben, a paranormal tour guide in New Orleans. Stanfield’s performance is felt as well as seen, and the hijinks the character gets into and his attitude all fuel the ghostly and ghastly happenings in the film when he is called upon by Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her intelligent son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon) to address a, well, a haunted mansion.
Playing off of elements that made The House on Haunted Hill and its remake, The Haunting, combined with elements from the attraction, screenwriter Katie Dippold locks on to differing emotional events affecting both Ben and Travis. Stanfield, Dawson, and Dillon are all great together. When you add the additional characters, Owen Wilson’s Father Kent, Danny DeVito’s Professor Bruce Davis, and Jamie Lee Curtis’ Madame Leota, things run a little amok in the scripting area.
The legendary supporting cast, DeVito and Curtis, are welcomed additions, even if underdeveloped. Wilson plays himself, which frequently doesn’t sit well with me. Oh, yes, how could I forget about Tiffany Haddish’s Harriet, who offers some level of comic relief above the scraps offered to the remaining supporting cast.
Haunted Mansion suffers from excess, namely in the runtime department. Yes, it is well-paced and has good intentions; it will make for a great family movie in light of the gargantuan Barbie, which is not a family affair. But, at 123 minutes, Haunted Mansion takes too long to resolve itself.
This is a common trait in Disney movies these days. The company is mining whatever is in its vaults, reimagining them, putting a stellar cast together, only to have the spirits of what was come crashing back to earth. If I’m being too hard on the film, it’s because, try as hard as Disney might, the mighty Disney is missing its spark. It’s feeling its age, just like the haunted mansion at the center of this movie.
Surprisingly, the visual effects are where Haunted Mansion shines, something that I could not say about The Little Mermaid earlier this year or any of the Marvel entries. The paranormal feeling generated by the sets reflects well on the intent, supported by Stanfield, primarily. Yet, the emotional trauma that Dillon portrays makes the entire adventure worth watching, even with my quibbles.
Dippold’s script lends a female-driven narrative and a welcomed one. Stanfield’s ease with the character and Ben’s own trauma also works. Simien’s direction has solid instincts, even if parts of the film feel over-directed.
As someone said elsewhere, I am probably overthinking the film’s intent. Its challenges lie within and outside the story; the strong performances have me returning to Haunted House long after I walked out of the multiplex.
Haunted Mansion has good intent, solid performances, and a convincing drama. It’s just too bad that this project gestated so long in development that this is the result. Not even a priest, a psychic, or a professor could save it from itself.