‘Haunted Mansion’: Not just confused but inconsequential

(1.5 stars)

If you had high expectations for “Haunted Mansion” — the movie based on the Disneyland theme park ride of the same name — I have some bad news. With muddy CGI, far too much story for even its two-hour run time and an emotional heart in cardiac arrest, “Haunted Mansion” simply doesn’t hold together. What should have been a light summer romp is rarely funny, never scary and a boring mess.

The film centers on Ben (LaKeith Stanfield), an astrophysicist turned New Orleans tour guide who is particularly skeptical of ghosts. He’s approached by Father Kent (Owen Wilson) to help single mom Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her 9-year-old son Travis (Chase Dillon) with a small problem in their new home: an old manor infested with poltergeists. Persuaded by the promise of $2,000, Ben agrees, taking along a camera said to be able to capture “the ghost particle.” After humoring Gabbie and Travis, Ben goes home, just as convinced that ghosts do not exist as he was before. But it’s not long before the spirits Ben so cavalierly ignored begin to haunt him. He returns to the titular mansion, finding Father Kent, Gabbie and Travis waiting. Eventually, the team recruits a medium (Tiffany Haddish) and a ghost historian (Danny DeVito) to try to rid the place of its many ghoulish inhabitants.

From there, the film loses momentum. Like a Disney ride running on a backup generator, “Haunted Mansion” is a low-energy experience, featuring too many stops and starts to ever keep a viewer’s attention. Despite repeating some names and gags from Disney’s shorter (and superior) “The Haunted Mansion,” the new film is neither a sequel nor a true retread of that 2003 movie, and viewers should feel no need to preface their viewing with the original.

Director Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) seems to have taken inspiration from Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist.” (This was equally true of Simien’s “Bad Hair”). The filmmaker uses similar setups and camera tricks to reference the 1982 masterpiece of PG-rated horror. It’s not a bad idea. Tasked with adapting family-friendly scares into a widely appealing film, “Poltergeist” is an understandable touchstone. But Simien hasn’t mastered the tonal juggling act here: “Poltergeist” was both funny and scary; “Haunted Mansion” is neither. While Hooper’s film used the suburban California setting to critique consumerism and the promise of early Reagan-era America, Simien’s film plays like an extended advertisement for an amusement park attraction.

And isn’t that what it really is?

Needless to say, “Haunted Mansion” isn’t the only ride Disney has tried to spin off into a motion picture. 2003’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” spawned four sequels (for now), creating what’s widely regarded as one of the better modern film franchises. Brad Bird’s “Tomorrowland” was a less successful attempt at creating franchise entertainment. More recently, “Jungle Cruise” tried to capitalize on not only the success of the Disney brand, but also the star power of Dwayne Johnson.

This latest effort is not all bad. DeVito’s professor makes for a nice wild card, energizing the film at its slowest points. (You’ll breathe a sigh of relief whenever he’s on-screen.) The film is also highlighted by several comedic cameos; those scenes change the tone of the film and shift the focus away from a below-average main story. While they are ultimately just diversions, you won’t really mind.

Here’s the bigger problem: Who is “Haunted Mansion” for? It’s too dark for a family film, too weightless and juvenile for grown-ups. In a season notable for high-level action spectacle and important auteur projects, “Haunted Mansion” is not just confused but inconsequential.

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains some mature thematic elements and scary action. 122 minutes.

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