Disney’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ is Charmingly Heartfelt

Disney’s “Haunted Mansion” evokes thoughtful discussions on topics of loss and grief, all while battling ghostly pests.

This article contains spoilers for Disney’s “Haunted Mansion.”

No, folks — Owen Wilson doesn’t say “wow” in this movie.

“Haunted Mansion,” directed by Justin Simien, is the second theatrical adaptation of Walt Disney’s The Haunted Mansion theme park ride. “Haunted Mansion” is preceded by 2003’s “The Haunted Mansion” and a Disney+ Original spin-off “Muppets Haunted Mansion,” released in 2021.

Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son Travis (Chase W. Dillon) move to New Orleans for a fresh start after the death of Travis’ father but discover their new home is already occupied — by ghosts.

To fight back against ghostly pests, they enlist the help of Father Kent, a spiritual medium named Harriet, former paranormal investigator Ben Matthias and college professor Bruce Davis.

Together, the group discovers that what started as a simple haunting is revealed to have deep, sinister roots. As the team unravels the mysteries of the mansion, the Hatbox Ghost (Jared Leto) — a dark force intent on trapping souls in the mansion to gain power — torments them relentlessly.

The scares of the film range from a poltergeist chasing characters with an ax to the decaying, white-eyed faces of the ghosts. Children may hide behind hands and adults may be caught off-guard by one or two jumpscares, but overall the movie reads more like a kid-friendly thriller than a horror.

The movie begins with an unheeding Gabbie distracted by moving technicalities. While she’s preoccupied, Travis explores the mansion, only to discover a wandering suit of armor and eerie reflections in dusty mirrors.

The opening cliché of an oblivious parent and their terrified, acutely-aware child instills a delightfully magical sense of adventure. 

Though the movie begins with the mother-son duo, the true star is LaKeith Stanfield as Ben. An astrophysicist turned paranormal tour guide, Ben creates a camera that can capture images of the ghostly figures in the living realm.

He leads a sorrowful life after the death of his wife, Alyssa. This grief becomes his character, establishing a meaningful narrative about loss and mourning while still remaining palatable to children.

Stanfield (“Knives Out,” “Get Out”) expertly builds this theme with a captivating, highly-emotional performance. In one scene, his face is streaked with tears as he discusses his wife’s death with the rest of the group, wondering if she knew he loved her. 

“I just wanted to see her one more time,” Ben softly mutters. “She died alone.”

The scene strikes an intimate chord for both children and adults who have experienced death and mourning in their personal lives.

Continuing to explore themes of grief, “Haunted Mansion” stresses the importance of having a support group and the worthwhile investments of trust and persistence. 

After learning of the death of Travis’ father, Ben connects with Travis over shared struggles.

“Tell me your misery,” Ben says. “We can be miserable together ‘til there’s nothing left.”

But in a realistic turn, during the final fight against the Hatbox Ghost, Ben asserts the idea that, though a support group has its advantages, it’s not all-healing.

“These people — they can’t save me from my grief,” he calls out to the Hatbox Ghost, “But they can save me from you.”

The movie also emphasizes the journey of finding peace after loss, offering a hand of guidance to kids who may feel lost or confused in their struggle with grief. 

After the defeat of the Hatbox Ghost, the mansion’s spirits are finally at rest and coexist peacefully with the living guests. In the final scene, at a dinner party involving both the living and the ghostly dead, Ben toasts “to the afterlife.” In response, Travis raises his glass “to life.” 

In effect, death is framed not as exclusively agonizing but as a necessary counterpart to the glories of life. The film’s messaging is artfully done, concluding with a heartening final note.

It’s predictable for a kid’s movie about death to deliver lessons on grief and loss — but this doesn’t make the film less impactful. 

Despite its heavy themes, “Haunted Mansion” also has its fair share of laughs. When Father Kent (Owen Wilson) calls for a prayer before engaging in a séance, he playfully asks God to give the group a break.

“We don’t want to be haunted,” he says. “There are so many bad people. Haunt them.” 

The movie also has many clever Easter eggs from the theme park attraction itself. Apart from the mansion’s specific rooms and characters present in the ride, the movie also uses dialogue from the ride and thoughtfully includes the rhyming gravestones that rest alongside the ride’s queues. 

One gravestone in the film ominously displays, “This maid liked to misbehave. Now she does so in her grave.”

Theme park dialogue continues when the film mentions 999 ghosts live in the mansion, only for a ghoul to reply, “But there’s always room for one more.” 

However, parts of the film lean too far into the ride as inspiration. Though initially charming, composer Kris Bowers’ constant use of the ride’s theme song “Grim Grinning Ghosts” quickly becomes annoyingly repetitive and unimaginative.

“Haunted Mansion” is also pathetically crowded with product placements and call-outs. Many are worked into jokes, like Harriet (Tiffany Haddish) mentioning that her spiritual sage comes from Costco. These mentionings ruin the film’s timeless feel and promise an eventual, dated death.

Regardless of its pitfalls, “Haunted Mansion” is a delightful movie — boasting kid-level scares bound to still entertain adults. It’s packed with nostalgia for Disney parkgoers, while gracefully addressing heavier topics for a younger audience.

“Haunted Mansion” is in theaters now.

Featured image courtesy of Disney

Catherine Meyer

Catherine Meyer