This article contains mild spoilers for Haunted Mansion. If you're yet to see the movie and don't want to know anything about the plot, turn back now.
Disney's latest Haunted Mansion movie is packed with fun Easter eggs for lovers of the ride – specifically, the California version – to enjoy, but does the film work as well for those who have no clue what the attraction actually is? Well, I'm here to tell you that, yep, it does. It's hilarious, moving and manages to welcome even the most foolish of mortals to its dense lore.
Directed by Dear White People's Justin Simien, the new take on the material follows astrophysicist Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), who's been struggling to reignite his passion for life since the sudden passing of his wife, Alyssa. Before her death, Alyssa ran a ghost tour in New Orleans and when she died, Ben took over, but there's one big problem: Ben is adamant ghosts don't exist.
He's proven wrong, of course, when he's hired by Owen Wilson's witty priest Father Kent to document the spirits that are reportedly plaguing recently relocated New Yorker Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her nine-year-old son Travis (Chase W. Dillon). To work out why the pesky poltergeists pester any human who steps over the threshold of the titular abode, the foursome recruit historian Bruce (Danny DeVito) and medium Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) – and well, wind up uncovering a murder mystery that goes back centuries.
The new movie isn't perfect. Its big cast means that only one or two of our heroes are awarded any depth or emotional arc, and I could've done with it being a bit darker and less of a CGI fest in its final act. I'm under no illusion, either, that my enjoyment of it stems hugely from the fact that it was penned by Katie Dippold, the co-writer of Ghostbusters (2016), which I unashamedly claim is the only good movie in that series. Clearly, Dippold and mine's sense of humors are aligned, particularly when it comes to laughs told through spooky lenses…
But by cramming the story full of fresh characters with different personalities and skill-sets, the mansion's secrets unravel organically and at a great pace, meaning that know-nothings like me aren't ever left scratching their heads. We learn things just as the curious sextet do, which stops the exposition and eureka moments from feeling clunky and unnatural. It's clever, too, how it uses the Haunted Mansion mythology as a backdrop for a new tale about romance, death, grief, and the power of found family; universal themes that anyone can relate to. The movie may be called Haunted Mansion, but it's more concerned with the living people inside it than the dead ones, and how we all connect to one another in this life and beyond.
Unlike the Eddie Murphy-fronted 2003 flick, which conjured up a convoluted plot about a work-obsessed realtor who gets more than he bargained for when he learns that his wife is the reincarnation of Elizabeth, the murdered paramour of the manor's original owner, the 2023 version keeps things simple.
Ben isn't inexplicably linked to the property or Gracey, the heartbroken widower who unleashed a plethora of phantoms into his home through trying to reconnect with his lost love, nor the villainous Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto). The baddie just sensed his pain the second he entered the mansion, and figured he'd be more easily convinced to cross over to the other side – becoming his 1000th claimed soul, and allowing him to escape the mansion – than someone who wasn't already in mourning and curious about the afterlife. Even with all of its supernatural elements, it's a much more believable and digestible interpretation of the original concept.
Dippold and Simien trust their audience, however young said cinemagoers are, to keep up with the nuggets they do drop (and tweak) as well, like the inclusion of Madame Leota, the iconic medium who was introduced at Disneyland before being added to different parks. In the movie, she's an important secondary character who Ben, Gabbie, and the gang go to for help. She's given more backstory here than in the earlier film, which helps ground her in its reality, as Jamie Lee Curtis's Leota explains how she assisted Gracey in his sorrowful séances and was cursed into a crystal ball by the malevolent Hatbox Ghost.
Okay, so I didn't realize the pun-filled tombstones were a reference to the ride; I just thought they were funny. Sure, things like the mansion's chairs being shaped like Doom Buggies or the fact that the stretching paintings in another of its rooms are a nod to the attraction, too, went over my head. But Dippold and Simien successfully ensure that the stuff that matters didn't, which makes me one very happy haunt.
Haunted Mansion is in US cinemas now, and releases in the UK on August 11. For more, check out our chat with director Justin Simien, our piece on why Paris’s Haunted Mansion ride would make for the best sequel, or our list of the new Disney movies coming our way.