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‘Haunted Mansion’s theatrical ride is light on chills and less of a ride of thrills

LaKeith Stanfield’s portrayal of a widowed astrophysicist and the ghost-hunting ensemble gives a decent bargain, but gives up its interesting controls way too soon.

Disney

The concept of unfinished business and ghosts collided in the 1995 live adaptation of Casper. There you had a paranormal therapist who dedicated his life to connecting to wayward spirits in hopes of connecting with his deceased wife. In all actuality, who hasn’t wanted to speak to a loved one one last time? Within a comedic film, that theme can set the table for some heartwarming moments. Disney’s latest attempt at making their longstanding theme park attraction, Haunted Mansion, plays off that premise slightly – although in a somewhat different direction. Ben Matthias (LaKeith Stanfield) is an astrophysicist who, at a chance meeting in a bar, meets his would-be fiancée. Unfortunately, that time is tragically cut short because she loses her life in a tragic accident.

Ben’s life goes on a downward trend – he resides to be a ghost tour guide in New Orleans even though he despises the notion of ghosts existing. The dark matter camera he was working on gets him laughed at, so he’s just wallowing in sadness. At least in the beginning, it feels like director Justin Simien’s interpretation of this story is veering off into something more profound with the meditation of how grief can derail the brightest of mines. Those elements don’t necessarily go away in Katie Dippold’s script (in fact, they make for some of the best scenes in the film), but we have a haunted mansion to get to.

Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move into Gracey Manor with one dream: to turn it into a bed and breakfast. However, the ghosts have other ideas, and the small family finds them out quickly. Even if you leave, there’s a catch in that the hauntings follow you wherever you go. As a disinterested Ben goes to survey the gothic setting, he quickly finds out this is something he can’t willingly discard. Of course, Ben cannot banish the ghosts and the ultimate evil entity, The Hatbox Ghost (played by Jared Leto), by himself. A team needs to be assembled, and their effectiveness works in varying degrees.

There’s Father Kent (Owen Wilson), who may have tackled these things before (depending on what you believe), a psychic medium (Tiffany Haddish), and professor Bruce Davis (Danny DeVito), that happens to be a top-notch expert in all things existing under the haunted house moniker. When the cast is not pushed to move to a somewhat unnatural dialogue full of protect placement, they are a lot of fun. Wilson’s upbeat nature plays off Stanfield’s skepticism and DeVito and Haddish the energetic portion of Haunted Mansion. In particular, Stanfield’s interactions with Dillion work the best. Travis is not all that liked in school and wrestling with the throes of tragedy himself. It’s nice to see them connect and try to navigate that together.

With that being said, there are times, especially later in the film, when Dillion’s voice and height change. Chalk it up to how the film was edited, but the slight continuity change might slightly take away from the emotional impacts of a child and father figure. Haunted Mansion is full of ghosts aplenty, and because of that, there is little to be scared about. Even as we learn more about The Hatbox Ghost – the fact that the audience gets to see little of him until he enacts his grand plan in the final act doesn’t lend to the urgency to stop it. For the most part, the ghosts are mostly CGI furniture built to get us from one action set piece to another.

That’s fine for a children’s film – however, Haunted Mansion hints at a version where it wants to go further into the weighty themes it places on the viewer heavily in the beginning and towards the end of its final act. Stanfield is undoubtedly game to showcase it, but the film feels like it can’t veer too far from the core younger audience it’s trying to entice. So you have a bigger version of the Disneyland ride with the same amount of staying power until you see another attraction.