Saturday, October 7, 2023

Hallo-Watch: Disney's Haunted Mansion (2023)

Watched:  10/05/2023
Format:  Disney+
Viewing:  First
Director:  Justin Simien

So, like many-a-product of the second half of the 20th century, I have a fondness for the Disney Parks and, especially, The Haunted Mansion ride.  I can easily recall my first time on the thing, sometime around 4th grade, and riding in a "doombuggy" with The Admiral and having a grand old time (core memory, as the kids say).  Since, I've been to Disneyland and The Magic Kingdom, and have no preference for which is which.  Both have excellent Haunted Mansion rides.  So, yeah, I'm predisposed on this IP.

Following the crazy success of making a story and movie around the ride and putting it in theaters with Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney tried to do this again a few ways.  Though, I have no idea how there is not a Space Mountain movie  I mean, come on.  But they did previously try a different Haunted Mansion movie starring no less than Eddie Murphy, and that movie did - fine at the box office.  It is exactly what you think a 2003 attempt at such a thing might be.  I think.  At least the first fifteen minutes is utterly predictable, unfunny and I didn't make it further than those first fifteen minutes before giving up.  But this post isn't about that movie.

There's also a 2021 Disney+ direct Muppets Haunted Mansion thing, which is cute and understands the ride and Halloween, plus Muppet humor.  And it has Taraji P. Henson, so it has my vote.  

Hope for box office springs eternal, and while Disney only made, like, $180 million on the first movie, meaning it wasn't the massive, unbelievable success of Johnny Depp playing Keith Richards in a hat, they decided to go again for 2023.  And, friends, Disney's Haunted Mansion (2023) absolutely tanked.  It made only $114 million on a budget much higher that that.  And that difference you're noticing between the 2003 and 2023 box office does not account for inflation.  So, yeah.

Which is a shame, because the movie is more watchable in many ways than the 2003 installment.  But, also, Disney had just spent lockdown proving to people that if you just wait, their movies will show up on Disney+, and you don't need to go to the theater to see them.  

I mean, that was 100% my take-away.  Sorry, Bob Chapek and Iger.

I'll start with the movie's issues, because that's easier and I'm lazy.  

It's too long.  It runs 2 hours and should have been 85-90 minutes.  There's both too much happening due to the cast's size, and not enough, as only one character really has an arc that's more than 3 bullet points, and he gets maybe 5 bullet points.  

And the cast introductions take forever as they're brought on one-by-one.  Look, there's a reason most haunted house movies have people who know each other or who all show up at the same time answering a mysterious summons.  Ie:  House on Haunted Hill should not have done this better.

There was no real reason to have a mystery to solve, let-alone one that was unnecessarily complicated and had red-herrings and ghosts introduced with seeming importance that go nowhere.  Why am I the one telling them:  Everything needs to take place in one location in a haunted house movie.  We don't need side-quests as folks leave the house at will. And, preferably, it takes place over 1 night. 

I don't understand both why and how the "The Hatbox Ghost" was Jared Leto.  I also don't understand what he was doing, what threat he presented, and if the ghosts in the house were for or against him.  And if you're going to have a central big bad, you kind of need to answer those things.

The actors and their alive human characters are fun.  The ghosts kind of are not.  

I don't get how you ride the Haunted Mansion ride and come out the other side not wanting to think more about those ghosts and their wacky nonsense and not want to play with ghost gags given a movie.  Maybe that's where the Eddie Murphy movie flopped?  I don't know.  This one went for genuine haunted house thrills, but never really commits to the frights, or even shows us what the ghosts get up to that's so bad.  We get told "don't leave the main set, because then it gets bad", so people... just don't.  And that's not how these movies work.  And, note to movie:  Long hallways are not *that* scary.

So, yeah, I don't really get what happened, but it can't have helped reviews or word of mouth.

And if I may complain:  why cast Rosario Dawson and then make her the most boring person on screen?  How is that possible?  Y'all need to sit and think on what you did.  I literally showed up for a Rosario Dawson movie, and then you side-lined her.

So, given this is the movie they did want to make:  

The FX were all solid and managed to walk the line between clearly ghostly and kind of spooky, but not so much you were going to traumatize a kid.  And this should be a kid's movie.  I particularly liked what they did with the hat box ghost and I laughed and laughed at how they handled the stretching room.  That was fun.

The sets,  DP work, lighting, etc... is all slick and kind of Disney perfect.  No notes.  Everything looks astonishing.  And the music is clever, borrowing from the ride's themes and spinning it.

We get a cast of stars, and minus Rosario Dawson, all get to be wacky fun.  Danny DeVito, Owen Wilson, Tiffany Haddish (who stole the show, imho), Jamie Lee Curtis, and fun cameos from Dan Levy, Winona Ryder and Hasan Minhaj all worked well.  

Lakeith Stanfield has to play a part that may be novel to kids but far less so to every adult who has seen a ghost movie since Ghost back around 1990.  But he's *great*.  I could watch him all day.  Even when he's funny, he managed a sort of melancholy, and the slow ebbing away of the depression as he befriends the cast is terrific (and when you consider it's shot out of order, amazing).  I also really liked the kid actor, who was really natural and sympathetic.  That kid will go far, if he wants.

It was clearly actually The Haunted Mansion from the ride.  I've only been on each a few times, but there are iconic bits in each, and those things popped up in the movie, from the seance room to the graveyard (complete with scared dog), to the dueling ghosts.  Like, notes taken.  Well done working the ride in.  And the perfect shot of the dining hall at the end.  Chef's kiss.

I don't think they did enough to make the ghosts funny, but the cast is funny.  Enough so that you might forget about the gags and jokes baked into the actual Haunted Mansion ride.  And while it would have been nice to have those better served, but we do get some good writing, comedy-wise, and everyone doing their part to make this funny (Wynona Ryder has a weird and funny line that I'm still chuckling over).  But Haddish really brings her A-game.

Anyway, I don't know anything about the production of this film, but it does reflect the sort of squishy movie-making that seems to have marked the Chapek era at Disney.  I have no idea how that's true or what happened, but it did.  I suppose rushing things into production.  

My big takeaway from the movie is that I want Jamie Lee Curtis to come to my house dressed as Madame Leota.  

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