Haunted Mansion Review: The Grim-Grinning Good Time Fans Have Been Asking For

20 years after its first attempt, Disney finally gets a Haunted Mansion movie right.

Disney has had something of an inconsistent track record when it comes to turning the company's iconic theme park attractions into feature films. Pirates of the Caribbean is a beacon of success, launching a franchise that spanned five films and took in billions at the box office. Then there's a made-for-TV take on the Tower of Terror, a pandemic-era Jungle Cruise movie that largely flew under the radar, and a Country Bears movie that most Disney fans choose to forget. And of course, there's The Haunted Mansion, the Eddie Murphy-starrer that was released in the same year as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, but ended up with a much different legacy.

The Haunted Mansion wasn't a disaster at the box office, but its reception from both critics and fans that gives the film a bad reputation. It's a comedy that isn't very funny, set in a mansion that isn't all that haunted, providing very little connection to the iconic Disney attraction that so many have come to love over the years. Disney's new take on Haunted Mansion was always going to have its work cut out for it, thanks to the ill will earned from the 2003 film. Some wondered if the attraction was somehow unadaptable without Guillermo del Toro (who was once attached to helm the project). Enter the team of director Justin Simien and screenwriter Kate Dippold, who have made questions about Haunted Mansion's adaptability feel rather silly. Their Haunted Mansion movie is a breath of fresh air for everyone who has grown tired of Disney's lifeless live-action output of late, as well as die-hard Haunted Mansion ride fans who have been begging to see a film actually give the attraction the love it deserves.

Disney's new Haunted Mansion tells an original story filled with original characters, but steeped in the lore of the ride itself. It centers itself around two different journeys: the grieving widower Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), a historical tour guide with bitter feelings towards the idea of ghosts, and the single mother-and-son duo of Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and Travis (Chase Dillon), who recently moved into the titular mansion. Gabbie and Travis soon discover that the new house is definitely haunted, but a parade of hitchhiking ghosts makes it impossible for them to leave or have any peace. They're forced to stay, so they start looking for help getting the hauntings under control. That help comes in the form of Ben, who has ties to the paranormal, an adventurous priest (Owen Wilson), a seemingly confident medium (Tiffany Haddish), and an eccentric historian (Danny DeVito). Together, they set out to determine what's wrong with the house, but the evil and nefarious Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) gives them more trouble than they bargained for.

Like many of the best ghost stories out there, Haunted Mansion deals head-on with the issue of grief and what it means to survive when you lose someone or something you love dearly. That core connection to the supernatural is something that 2003's The Haunted Mansion sorely lacked. Just because something is "family friendly" doesn't mean it has to avoid the topics of death and loss altogether, a fact that Dippold's script both understands and embraces. This allows the movie to be the comedy Disney has been asking for – that a wide range of audiences will want to see – without abandoning the spooky spirit that so may adore from the ride itself.

Even if Haunted Mansion wasn't based on an existing Disney attraction, it achieves the perfect balance of comedy, adventure, and horror that Simien is aiming for. There are some genuine scares in this movie (especially at the beginning), which will satisfy everyone who hoped Haunted Mansion would skew into horror territory. It's also a film with an emotional core – leaning heavily on Stanfield – that happens to be relentlessly funny throughout. When it comes to the humor itself, the cast couldn't be more game. Everyone in this lineup is hilarious in their own right. Haddish and Wilson are obvious standouts but it's DeVito that really delivers the biggest laughs of the entire film.

That balanced tone isn't the only way Haunted Mansion captures the essence of Disney's beloved ride, and the biggest fans of the attraction will likely get the most out of the experience of seeing the movie. From its plot devices to its backdrops, so much of Haunted Mansion is connected to the ride that inspired it. The idea of hitchhiking ghosts "following you home" is a key part of the story in the first half of the movie. The evil forces of the house needing one more soul to add to the 999 that already dwell is essentially what kicks all of the action into gear. Of course, the bride has a part to play and there's an entire sequence set in the stretching room.

This even goes down to small, Easter egg-level nods, like the chair from the first section of the ride being featured in a key scene or the floating candelabra down the deserted hallway. There's even a scene that sends a character on a Haunted Mansion-esque ride, with their chair looking like a "Doom Buggy" as they're sent down the front steps and out of the house.

Around every corner in this big-screen Haunted Mansion you'll find something that ties it to the original attraction, but that doesn't mean you have to be a Disney fanatic to enjoy or even keep up with the movie. All of the nods serve the story and characters in the film, but they never take center stage. They may add to the experience for major Haunted Mansion fanatics, but they never take away from it for anyone else. That can be the trouble with certain IP titles, but Haunted Mansion manages to avoid those pitfalls entirely.

Unlike the 2003 take on Haunted Mansion, Simien and Dippold's version actually makes great use of the New Orleans setting. Whether it's as a tool to get more supernatural elements into the story or to focus on the city's stunning architecture, New Orleans is made to be a part of this film down to its very foundation. The design of the actual house takes its nods from that architectural style, as well as the Disneyland ride, allowing it to feel like something both spooky and tactile. It would've been easy to simply make a few random rooms that are supposed to exist in a creepy old haunted house, but Haunted Mansion's design team clearly put a lot of love and effort into creating something that would feel different than what we've seen on screen before.

The hardest part of a film like this is sticking the landing. You can lay all the pieces out there and include plenty of great nods to whatever inspired it, but actually nailing the third act is a whole different conversation. Haunted Mansion is able to do it better than most. The stories of both Ben and Travis not only directly connect to one another, but they come around to tie into the Haunted Mansion lore aspect of the plot as well. Everything is wrapped up in a nice, satisfying bow, without forcefully scattering seeds for a sequel or spinoff. In today's landscape of IP moviemaking, that's more refreshing than you might realize.

At long last, Haunted Mansion finally gets the adaptation the beloved ride has always deserved – a fun, scary, and surprisingly emotional time at the movies. It may not be a groundbreaking cinematic achievement like Gore Verbinski's first outing with Jack Sparrow, but it's certainly Disney's best live-action movie since Pirates of the Caribbean wrapped up its initial trilogy

Rating: 4 out of 5

(Photo: Walt Disney Studios)

Haunted Mansion hits theaters on July 28th.