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Movie review: 'Haunted Mansion' does Disney right

From left to right, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, LaKeith Stanfield and Owen Wilson star in "Haunted Mansion." Photo courtesy of Disney
1 of 5 | From left to right, Rosario Dawson, Tiffany Haddish, LaKeith Stanfield and Owen Wilson star in "Haunted Mansion." Photo courtesy of Disney

LOS ANGELES, July 25 (UPI) -- After a lackluster 2003 adaptation, Disneyland and Magic Kingdom attraction Haunted Mansion finally gets a movie as good as the first Pirates of the Caribbean.

Haunted Mansion, in theaters Friday, is a clever, poignant ghost story whether you've been on the ride or not.

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Ben (LaKeith Stanfield) is a promising astrophysicist when he meets Alyssa (Charity Jordan) at a New Orleans bar. Years later, Ben is alone and giving local tours, but insisting he does not believe in ghosts.

When Gabbie (Rosario Dawson) and her son, Travis (Chase W. Dillon), move from New York, they encounter genuine apparitions in their new abode. Father Kent (Owen Wilson) recruits Ben to help them with the lens he invented, which reportedly can see the dead.

Once convinced Gabbie and Travis' new home is haunted, Ben and Kent recruit Bruce (Danny DeVito), a professor of haunted homes, and Harriet (Tiffany Haddish), a medium.

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Haunted Mansion is scary like Ghostbusters and Poltergeist were, which is OK for kids to see, but intense enough to scare them. Director Justin Simien smartly follows the cinematic rule of only showing hints of the ghosts in the first half of the movie.

The film recreates some of the visual hallmarks of the Disneyland attraction and some surreal cinematic imagery of its own. Secret passageways reveal hidden rooms and spirits can give some of the rooms otherworldly physics.

The gang of paranormal investigators follow clues regarding the home's original owner, William Gracey (J.R. Adduci) which leads them to other paranormal characters and the explanation of why the house is haunted.

Some of the twists will be obvious to experienced movie fans, but maybe not to young viewers, who have not yet seen an M. Night Shyamalan movie.

Any ghost story is about unfinished business at its heart. Screenwriter Katie Dippold nails that theme in a few key emotional scenes.

Stanfield gives a genuinely emotional performance as a man who has lost someone close to him. This grounds the film without hitting adult themes too hard.

The comedy is less consistent. Not every joke lands, and when they bomb, they make the viewer wish the writers had just moved along with the story. Usually, it's Kent's jokes that don't work in the first half of the film, but he lands some zingers as the mystery unfolds.

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Harriet is always on point, calling out the extreme supernatural occurrences. Bruce is an amusing blowhard. too.

By the finale, Haunted Mansion becomes a ghostly jamboree with all the spirits revealed. Haunted Mansion delivers the thrills its title promises, but has a little bit more on its mind to complete a satisfying movie.

Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.

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