Haunted Mansion

Anyone who follows The Walt Disney Company knows that over the last several decades, the line between Disney's theme parks and studios have gotten increasingly blurred... We like to say that we've entered the age of the "Disney+ Park," when Disney's theme park designers have been tasked with incorporating Disney + Pixar + Marvel + Star Wars into Walt Disney World instead of creating new stories of their own. But it turns out that the opposite can also be true.

The practice of turning Disney rides into films has been around for decades. Back in 2018, we took a look at the best (and worst) of Disney's ride-to-film adaptations. Back then, new "Jungle Cruise" and "Haunted Mansion" films were in early pre-production, with legendary filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (known for highly stylized, award-winning gothic horror and fantasy films) pegged to direct the latter.

Clearly, things changed quickly. Which brings us to 2023's Haunted Mansion... Does this adaptation manage to achieve the impossible task of pleasing both Disney Parks die-hards and the general public looking for a family-friendly summer comedy? Does it pay homage to the Mansion's deeply-studied characters and much-loved lore while also being accessible to those without a penchant for the Parks? Will it leave any footprint back in New Orleans Square and Liberty Square? And maybe more to the point, is Disney's latest ride-to-film adaptation a frightfully fun time, or a horrifying mess? Here's what you need to know...

1. Giving story to the story-less

Image: Disney

Let's be clear: the Haunted Mansion ride doesn't have a "story," it was purposefully designed as a collection of odd sights and sounds, roughly divided into two halves. The first half (overseen by legendary Imagineer Claude Coats) is scary and atmospheric, with unseen specters and eerie sights. Then, Madame Leota's seance serves as a pivot point, with riders' "sympathetic vibrations" and Leota's call causing ghosts to finally "materialize," creating a second half filled with stylized, often-comical characters designed by the legendary Marc Davis.

Sure, in the 55 years since it opened, fans have fallen in love with the characters, songs, and settings of the ride and created their own backstories and "lore..." But any film adaptation has to do what Imagineers purposefully didn't: to have the ride's famous vignettes coalesce into a "story" with a beginning, middle, and end; "good guys" and "bad guys;" a connection to all the ride's disconnected characters. And ideally, to also capture both the "hide in mom's lap" fear and the cautious, musical "fun" that the ride somehow manages to master.

That's a lot to tackle, and 2003's Haunted Mansion proves how difficult that balance can be... 

2. The first go-round

Image: Disney

That's right – Disney's latest ride to get a film adaptation was also one of the first rides to get a film adaptation. No conversation about 2023's Haunted Mansion can be complete without mentioning the big screen retelling from exactly twenty years earlier. Just missing a Halloween-season release, November 2003's The Haunted Mansion signaled an unusual direction for the storied ride. The film featured many of the iconic settings and scenes from the ride, but it remixed them as a family comedy starring Eddie Murphy as a realtor who yelps and babbles at each of the home's supernatural sights.

Pulled in a lot of different directions, Murphy's Haunted Mansion featured gorgeous physical sets and some genuinely creepy moments, but it misinterpreted the ride's lighthearted and "frightfully fun'' moments into slapstick humor and choices that seemed to undercut the classic ride.

Image: Disney

Despite scathing reviews (with a score of just 14% on Rotten Tomatoes), the 2003 film managed to earn an alright $180 million. Of course, in the wake of that summer's Pirates of the Caribbean earning almost $700 million, Mansion looked like a dud. That's probably a good thing, because if it had been a blockbuster, we may very well have seen Eddie Murphy animatronics added to the ride, or seen Madame Leota's voice changed to the comedically-vocal-fried Jennifer Tilly.

3. A comedic take

Image: Disney

2003's Haunted Mansion didn't connect with filmgoers or fans of the ride. That made the idea of reboot with Guillermo del Toro at the helm particularly interesting... it seemed to suggest that Disney understood that the "family comedy adventure" direction just didn't jive with what people wanted from the Haunted Mansion, and that a second adaptation would be very different tonally from the first – and thus, worth making. Allegedly, though, Disney got cold feet around del Toro's script. As a result, a new creative team (built around award-winning newcomer director Justin Simien and Parks & Recreation writer Katie Dippold) took Mansion in a new direction... one much more comfortable for Disney, and much closer to the 2003 attempt.

That change was confirmed by the announcement of an ensemble cast of comedic types (including Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito, and Jamie Lee Curtis) signaling that Disney would take its new Haunted Mansion in the "family comedy adventure" direction again. Almost emulating a game of "Clue," the film sees an astrophysicist, a doctor, a priest, a psychic, and a professor drawn to the Mansion. There are definitely a few jump-scares. There are also eerie moments and settings. Likewise, familiar characters from the ride appear, with fleshed-out backstories and connections needed to turn mere illusions into a movie.

Image: Disney

But ultimately, there's no question that Haunted Mansion will end up slotting nicely into the genre you might call "overly-produced, CGI-heavy, Disney family adventure films that vastly underperform and fail to connect with audiences" (like Oz The Great and Powerful, A Wrinkle in Time, The Sorcerer's ApprenticeThe NutcrackerJungle CruisePrince of PersiaTomorrowland...). And unfortunately, that includes in its box office and critical reception... Read on...


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