By Laurie Coker
Like movies based on children’s books, movies based on amusement park rides, can be hits (like Pirates of the Caribbean) or misses (like Polar Express). Disney’s new movie Haunted Mansion, based on the well-known Disney attraction of the same name, falls somewhere in between. Geared more toward children, director Justin Simien, with a script from Katie Dippold, fails to rise to its strong cast’s efforts, but does provide some hilarious and entertaining moments.
Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move into an old mansion in New Orleans, where within minutes of arrival, they discover that the house is haunted by not just one, but many ghosts. They attempt to leave, but a ghost attaches itself to them and they are forced to return to the mansion. Gabbie enlists Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield), Kent (Owen Wilson), Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), and Harriet (Tiffany Haddish). Each has a special set of skills – Matthias, an astrophysicist, designed a specter capturing camera, Kent is a priest, Davis has all the research on the inhabitants and history of the house, and Harriet is an accomplished medium. They, too, become tied to the house after stepping over the threshold and as a team, they become embroiled in a battle to rid the house of its paranormal residents. But first they have to find out what evil controls everything.
What I found most interesting is Dippold and Simien’s inability to stay true to one style. At times, the film descends into slapstick silliness aimed at kids, and other times, some aspects border on too scary for little ones. Regardless, the cast really shines though. As an ensemble they blend well and have excellent chemistry. It is they who keep viewers engaged despite the flatness of some aspects of the story and the crew’s inability to stay true to the more adult themes. Initially, the film exhibits greater ambition and a somewhat more adult sensibility, exploring themes of loss and grief amidst the tributes to unfolding rooms and hitchhiking ghosts. When they digress to campy pratfalls and gags, the story loses momentum.
Haddish’s Harriet is a great deal of fun, as is DeVito’s Davis. They offer up plenty of laughs. Wilson does Wilson – the slick, awe shucks banter and adlibbing is apparent. While the story begins with Gabbie and Travis (Dillion is excellent), it moves to Matthias, whose personal loss makes him a prime target for a demon ghost seeking a soul to steal. Gabbie, Travis and Matthias provide the more serious elements of the plot, but together, the entire cast rock the film.