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‘Haunted Mansion’ Review: A Disney Ride to Nowhere Fun

‘Haunted Mansion’ Review: A Disney Ride to Nowhere Fun

There is a mansion, it is haunted, boo, blah, the end.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about “Haunted Mansion,” a live-action branding opportunity from Disney “inspired by” its theme-park attraction of the same name. The first of these opened in 1969 in Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif., where it’s in the “Music-Lovin’ New Orleans Square,” as the park’s website puts it. That’s the site of another fan favorite, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which spawned a multibillion-dollar film franchise for Disney. “Haunted Mansion” is unlikely to do the same.

This is the second feature based on the “Mansion” attraction. (A 2021 Halloween special, “Muppet Haunted Mansion,” is streaming on Disney+.) The first film, “The Haunted Mansion” (2003), starring Eddie Murphy, was widely panned but made millions. In his review, the New York Times critic Elvis Mitchell wrote that it was “only a matter of time before “‘Parking Lot: The Movie’ and ‘People-Mover: The Motion Picture,’” an observation that feels more true and less funny now that this year has brought us other I.P.-based branding opportunities about all kinds of stuff, including sneakers (“Air”), games (“Tetris,” “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”), junk food (“Flamin’ Hot”) and, of course, a doll (a.k.a. “Barbie”).

The new “Haunted Mansion” was directed by Justin Simien, whose first feature, “Dear White People” (2014), is an incisive, sharply funny satire about a political firestorm at a college that earned him a lot of attention and led to both a book and a well-received Netflix show of the same title. I hope that Disney paid Simien truckloads of money to direct “Haunted Mansion,” and that he had more fun making it than I had watching it. He keeps things moving along, more or less, and the appealing cast hit their marks, but it’s dispiriting to see him directing what is effectively a feature-length Disney promotion. I hope it’s his last big-studio ad.

It stars LaKeith Stanfield (“Atlanta”), who imbues his generic role — a brainiac with a tragic story and busy tear ducts — with more emotional intensity than the movie calls for, which is its only surprise. His character, Ben, has developed a camera that can take photographs of ghosts, equipment that you’d expect the paranormal investigators in the (non-Disney) Ghostbusters series to have. And, wouldn’t you know it, the screenwriter here, Katie Dippold, also co-wrote the female-led “Ghostbusters” (2016) reboot. Like that movie, “Haunted Mansion” features a ragtag group of likable eccentrics battling digital ghosts, but it’s fright-free and far less funny. It’s all setup and no payoff.

The cast includes Rosario Dawson, whose unwaveringly fixed smile suggests that she decided to just grin and bear it to play Gabbie, a single mother with a predictably cute moppet, Travis (Chase W. Dillon). Gabbie wants to open a bed-and-breakfast in the mansion, which she found on Zillow, one of a number of product brands invoked throughout the movie. (For a cross-promotion stunt, the mansion has been listed on Zillow in the real world.) Also onboard is an oddball priest (Owen Wilson), a ditsy medium (Tiffany Haddish) and an excitable scholar (Danny DeVito). Jamie Lee Curtis pops in, too, for a turn that made me want to rewatch her genuinely scary performance in “The Bear,” a show on the Disney-owned streamer Hulu. I’d watch Curtis in just about anything, including “Parking Lot: The Movie,” which I assume is already in development.

Haunted Mansion
Rated PG-13 for very mild ghost action. Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes. In theaters.

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