In 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl defied all odds. Gore Verbinski’s fantasy epic seemed doomed, since pirate movies had faded out of popularity decades prior and a theme park-inspired blockbuster was still a weird, novel concept. But when it splashed into theaters, it made more than $650 million worldwide and launched a five-movie franchise, with more rumored on the way.
Here’s the thing, though: Apart from the Disney fans who followed the saga of the film’s production, not many people even realized it was a theme park movie. Verbinski made the wise choice to not build the movie around the ride. Sure, diehards might be able to squint and point to smaller references, like the dog holding a keyring in its mouth. But Pirates of the Caribbean is an adaptation in name only. And in 2003, that worked.
By contrast, The Haunted Mansion, the movie that came out the same year, is full of characters from and references to the corresponding Disney ride. The film earned some cult love, but it was critically panned, and while it made blockbuster money, it couldn’t compare to Pirates of the Caribbean’s box-office booty.
Making a theme park movie in 2023 is very different than it was 20 years ago. In 2023, theme parks are more expensive than ever, but also more accessible via social media. People who can’t afford Disney park vacations can still watch ride-throughs on YouTube, and fan sites keep readers up to date on every minute change and plan for the parks and their attractions.
So instead of shying away from references and in-jokes, Justin Simien’s 2023 version of Haunted Mansion goes even harder than the 2003 movie. The new film, starring LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson, and Danny DeVito, is full to the brim with theme park nods — from the wallpaper pattern in the haunted mansion to the main ghostly characters, from the soundtrack to the portraits hanging on the walls. It’s basically a checklist of the most beloved items from the Disney park attraction. But here’s the thing: It kinda works?
[Ed. note: This review contains some setup spoilers for Haunted Mansion, and also ride spoilers.]
What separates the Haunted Mansion as a theme park attraction from Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and other rides turned movies is that the ride itself already has a lot of story and lore attached to it. The Haunted Mansion is a little different in each Disney park, but they all have storytelling details nestled into every cobwebbed crevice. For this movie, Simien and writer Katie Dippold (Snatched, the 2016 Ghostbusters) have brushed off some of the dusty busts and portraits in order to bring them to life. I couldn’t count every single ghost that appeared, but I definitely recognized some staples from the ride.
You don’t need any deep ride-lore appreciation to watch the movie, which is a pretty fun comedy-horror bolstered by a stellar cast. But it sure does help, especially when it comes to some of the film’s more puzzling details. A brief pan to a portrait of a lady reclining and then turning into a catlike woman in a beam of moonlight, for instance, might seem like a random furry cameo if you don’t know that it’s one of the portraits you ride past in the opening moments of the attraction.
Those brief nods are nice little details, but when the movie starts to integrate specific ride mechanics, I wasn’t quite sold. It might be a win for theme park enthusiasts to see that Simien and Dippold managed to integrate the stretching-room mechanic pretty seamlessly into the movie, but even as someone who loves the Haunted Mansion, that felt a bit too in-jokey for me. I don’t like the big climatic moments of my movie experiences to be tied to specific bits of knowledge — even when I’m the one in on it this time around. Sure, it made for a cool set-piece, but that was the moment the movie pandered to the ride too much for me.
That said, it is still deeply impressive that the 2023 Haunted Mansion leans so much on the ride but still manages to be a solid, enjoyable movie. The plot itself could use some streamlining, especially with an unnecessary field trip some of the characters take late in the movie, moving the action away from the mansion. But the stars bring their all to the roles.
Stanfield is more of the straight man (if anyone in this kooky cast can be a straight man) for everyone to bounce off of, but as a socially awkward, grieving astrophysicist turned reluctant paranormal investigator and tour guide, he brings his own grounded humor. DeVito and Haddish are both chaotic entities, playing a kooky history professor and a flamboyant medium, respectively. Rounding out the investigator quartet is Wilson as Father Kent, a priest who keeps offering pep talks and positive spiels, even if the actual prayers and blessings he says seem to be a bit… off.
In another movie, every one of these characters would be relegated to a role as the sole comedic relief in the cast. Here, brought together, they ricochet off each other with delightfully frenzied energy as they react to the hauntings in the mansion. And the movie does get spooky, within the safe confines of still being a PG-13 Disney flick.
In 2003, Verbinski distanced Pirates of the Caribbean from being a theme park movie. In 2023, Simien and crew revel in the fact that Haunted Mansion is one. Simien could’ve simply just leaned on the theme park of it all, like 2021’s Jungle Cruise, but he committed to getting all the little details on screen — and he committed hard. It’s full-throttle indulgence, and a full 180 from the Pirates of the Caribbean take on theme park movies. Both takes work, though this time around, the niche in-jokes might not hit with everyone. But for the subset it resonates with, Haunted Mansion is a grim, grinning delight.
Haunted Mansion hits theaters on July 28.