Twenty years after their first attempt, Disney’s live action studio is taking moviegoers inside the HAUNTED MANSION again. This is a full reboot, ignoring the first film and creating its own mythology for the much beloved theme park attraction. The 2003 film starred Eddie Murphy, and for fans of the ride, it fell far short with a limp story and miscasting. It didn’t help that just a few months before, Disney had released the gold standard in ride-to-film adaptations, the surprise smash Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.


LIST: References and hidden tributes in 2023 live action HAUNTED MANSION


Former Disney studios chairman Dick Cook teased a new version at the first D23 Expo in 2009, promising a scarier take from award-winning auteur Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). Fans were thrilled, but like the on-ride Ghost Host, it never materialized. Over time the project morphed into what is now landing in theaters from director Justin Simien (Dear White People) and writer Katie Dippold (Ghostbusters).

This new story follows Gabbie and Travis (the luminous Rosario Dawson and excellent Chase W. Dillon, respectively), a mother and son moving into a dilapidated mansion on the outskirts of New Orleans for a new start. From the moment they enter the house its ghosts make themselves known, prompting them to assemble a scream team (I’m sorry) of experts to cleanse it: Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), an astrophysicist with supernatural-seeking equipment, Father Kent (Owen Wilson), a priest with a secret, Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a medium with a chip on her shoulder, and Bruce (Danny DeVito), a local professor who studies the area’s estates.


Dippold’s script liberally dips into the ride’s lore and finds plenty of opportunities to create a harmonious story for the house and the existence of its various inhabitants. Ride fans will be tripping over themselves to spot every Easter egg, and you can tell that everyone involved deeply loves the ride and wanted to represent it well. This alone represents a huge improvement over the 2003 film. But the film’s humor doesn’t always work. A lot of funny people are onscreen, but the jokes rarely land. The twists seem overly obvious to anyone paying attention, but the film plays them up like they’re flabbergasting.

Academy Award-winner Jamie Lee Curtis makes a much-hyped appearance as Madame Leota, and she fills the crystal ball well. Jared Leto supposedly plays the Hatbox Ghost, but it might as well be anybody. We’re not sure what the point was in hiring a star actor for a CGI role with a processed voice. Daniel Levy (Schitt’s Creek) makes a hilarious cameo, and there’s one more cameo that was clearly meant to be an unadvertised surprise and we won’t spoil it for you here.


The film is, to our surprise, an emotional study of grief. Stanfield’s heartbroken character sits at the center of the story, and despite his anger and self-destruction, you can’t help but feel for him. The movie oscillates between the scary (for Disney), the silly, and the intensely emotional. Dillon matches Stanfield’s intensity, and there were onions being chopped at our screening judging by the sniffles heard throughout the theater.

Dawson and DeVito feel a little wasted here, without as much to do as we would have liked, and there are some gaps in the mythology that require some extra suspension of disbelief. But when it came down to it, we wanted to see it again. As big fans of the attraction, seeing how each part of it fit into the story was like opening presents one at a time. One particular reveal made us literally gasp as the story veers into very dark places when we learn about its central villain.


We’re not sure a late July release gives this film the space it needs to be appreciated by audiences, but as satisfied HAUNTED MANSION superfans, we hope more than 999 happy haunts venture out to see it in theaters.

See it for Yourself

HAUNTED MANSION materializes in theaters July 28, 2023.