The Pitch: Once upon a time, brilliant scientist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) was in love, and since his wife’s death, he’s been running historical tours through New Orleans and firmly insisting to his tourist clientele that ghosts aren’t real. That point of view meets some opposition, though, when a priest specializing in exorcisms (Owen Wilson) asks for his help — Ben once developed a camera that could potentially capture the images of spirits, which might help single mother Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase Dillon) deal with the spooks residing in their haunted mansion.
Turns out Ben was wrong about that whole ghosts-aren’t-real thing, as both a trip to the mansion and his fancy ghost camera confirm, and he’s now as (literally) haunted as the others. So with the help of a psychic (Tiffany Haddish) and a historian (Danny DeVito), this unlucky but plucky group has to figure out the mystery behind the mansion’s ghosts, before the boundar…
Now, As They Say, Look Alive: In the wake of Barbie, it’s time to acknowledge that yes, original ideas are always exciting to see on screen, a great movie can come from anywhere or anything, even a theme park ride — something which Disney has known for two decades now, following the critical and commercial success of Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
The studio has been chasing that high ever since, though, and subsequent efforts to capture the same Pirates magic (including a previous attempt at The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy) haven’t been as successful: The Pirates sequels have been the textbook definition of diminishing returns, Tomorrowland was a fascinating but bizarre misfire, and Jungle Cruise borrowed so heavily from The Curse of the Black Pearl that it muffled the genuinely enjoyable aspects of that film (primarily Dwayne Johnson’s unending supply of dad jokes).
This Haunted Mansion, directed by Justin Simien and written by Katie Dippold, succeeds at its most important task — to feel like an actual film, and not just a thin translation of the very familiar IP (familiar, at least, to anyone who’s ridden a Doom Buggy through the halls of that decrepit mansion in New Orleans Square in Disneyland). The fact that it also happens to be a light, family-friendly, but still occasionally spooky adventure with some real poignancy to it is a very welcome bonus.
Simien brings a focus to the details of the production that ensures plenty of fun Easter eggs for Disney fans, while also giving the individual characters and their environments a life of their own. Following a prologue in the titular mansion, the story begins in actual New Orleans, with that city’s unique gumbo of an aesthetic spilling over into the rest of the film, allowing the production design to reflect both the original ride as well as its real-world inspiration. Meanwhile, costume designer Jeffrey Kurland doesn’t just succeed in recreating iconic ghost ensembles, but in giving all of the human characters their own unique looks, essential to the creation of this diverse ensemble.