Entertainment Weekend: Baby’s first horror? Disney’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ conjures up a story about grief

LaKeith Stanfield is disarmingly good as a grief-stricken astrophysicist barely scraping by in New Orleans, and increasingly jaded about the spirit-crazed tourists and mythologies of the city he calls home.

Unfortunately, though, this character and performance is housed in “ Haunted Mansion,” Disney’s second attempt in 20 years to make a fun movie out of one of its beloved theme park rides. This version, directed by Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) and written by Katie Dippold (“The Heat” and that iconic Babadook tweet ) is worlds better than the Eddie Murphy disaster, but it’s not really fun, spooky or engaging enough to make much of an impression beyond the moment.

It’s too bad because the movie has some great writing, ideas and production design, as well as a cast including Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, Tiffany Haddish and Jamie Lee Curtis, who seem game to go big in that way that actors are only really allowed to in movies aimed at a younger audience. Wilson, as a priest who recruits Stanfield to come to the haunted house to investigate, spins every line into gold. It’s perfect comedic relief, which Haddish, oddly, does not get enough of. Playing a psychic, she’s a bit more subdued than usual, maybe playing against her character’s elaborate turbans (costumer designer Jeffrey Kurland and his team went all out, in the best way, for this stylish lot).

The main problem is that “Haunted Mansion” strains to make coherent sense out of the disparate parts of the ride — the paintings, the seance table, the dance hall, Madame Leota — while also trying to tell a sincere story about grief and catharsis. Wasn’t the song about grim grinning ghosts coming out to socialize? This has more in common with the sadistic “ Bird Box Barcelona ” than I thought possible for a Disney movie, but at least someone had the good sense to cast an effortlessly menacing presence like Jared Leto as the bad ghost.

Still, this house has too many rooms and options for one movie — not to mention for a single mom (Dawson) looking to make a fresh start with her snappily dressed son by starting a bed and breakfast. I do wonder, hauntings aside, what her business plan was for this massive estate.

“Haunted Mansion” gets off to a needlessly confusing start, jumping around timelines and introducing its ensemble without much context, including Stanfield’s Ben as a ghost skeptic and, separately, Dawson’s Gabbie and her son Travis (Chase Dillon), as they move into the house in the middle of the night. This sequence is perfectly eerie and funny as Travis starts to explore the strange house, immediately noticing creepy oddities. Gabbie tries to reassure him until she catches her own glimpse of a wandering knight and they book it for the exit.

The haunted mansion catch is that once you enter the house, a ghost attaches itself to you — just like in the Doom Buggies in the ride — and haunts you until you come back. There is a lot of explanation but also somehow not enough as it’s still a little unclear how they get from A to B. This movie gets tangled up in its own mythology and labyrinth of logic.

“Haunted Mansion” also attempts to employ modern horror flourishes that one might see in an R-rated Blumhouse movie but for the under-13 set. It’s a strange trend in kids movies to try to do the same thing you’d do in an adult movie but tamed down. This was recently a problem in the “Paw Patrol” movie, of all things, which seems to be partly homage to the later “Fast & Furious” films. Perhaps this is welcome in a horror context for kids itching to watch the more grown-up fare. But did we need to up the scare factor for kids in this way? Regular old ghost stories and a childlike imagination have been doing that heavy lifting for as long as there have been kids in the world. They don’t need “Insidious”-lite terror.

And then there’s this whole death thing, which in a movie about a haunted mansion makes sense, but “Haunted Mansion” perhaps takes it, and the kitchen sink computer graphics, a little too far.

The gold standard for these ride-based movies is still the first “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which they have not been able to replicate. But it’s interesting to have “Haunted Mansion” come on the heels of something like the “Barbie” movie — an auteur-driven, best-case scenario born out of a product. “Haunted Mansion” is by no means a terrible movie, or even an unpleasant watch, but it’s just missing the magic that makes the trip to the theaters (or Disney World) worth it.

“Haunted Mansion,” a Walt Disney Co. release in theaters Friday, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association for “scary action, some thematic elements.” Running time: 122 minutes. Two stars out of four.


MPA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.


Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr.  by Taboola