Disney's Haunted Mansion's Most Surprising Character Transformation Explained

"It's very surprising," marveled "Haunted Mansion" director Justin Simien to Entertainment Weekly about one of the leading performances in his new Disney film. "You'd be shocked to know who it was [when] you're told."

Luckily, the film informs the audience of this "surprising" performance in the film's opening credits, confidently boasting at the end of an already expensive roster, "And Jared Leto as the Hatbox Ghost." This terrifying line (in an otherwise deliberately un-scary film) appears on screen roughly 30 to 45 minutes before the Hatbox Ghost actually appears, presumably to allow for the audience to overcome their "shock" in time to enjoy what Leto brings to one of Disney's most recognizable characters.

What exactly does he bring, you ask? Pretty much nothing. Physically, whatever motion capture Leto might be doing is buried under what could charitably be described as intentionally cartoonish CGI — though that wouldn't square with what Simien appeared to be aiming for. "We're trying to go for something scary that feels like it could exist physically in the real world, on the ride, but pushes the scare a lot further than the ride does," he said. Unfortunately, there is nothing apparently "real" or "scary" about the toy-like character model for Leto's Hatbox Ghost, which would be right at home in the defunct children's game "Disney Infinity." It certainly doesn't help that it bears no resemblance to Leto whatsoever, or that his voice is unrecognizably distorted by the most artificial-sounding, generic movie-monster voice we've heard in years.

Despite Simien's skillful media massaging (he's a former PR manager, after all), it's hard to see why production would enlist Leto, a divisive and undoubtedly costly hire, to play such an impersonal role — unless, of course, they were merely hoping for the promotion.

Movies need actors – even after filming wraps

As is being proven by the disappointing yet expected late-2023 release delays due to the Hollywood shutdown, actors are desperately needed by studios (yes, even after they finish work on set) to promote the films they star in. With SAG-AFTRA striking against the AMPTP for, among other things, common sense safeguards against AI, actors — including the cast of "Haunted Mansion" — are prohibited from so much as giving interviews or attending the premieres of their films.

Obviously, no director or casting agent would come out and state that certain actors were hired for projects only for their reach, though it would certainly explain some of the more bizarre casting choices coming out of Hollywood recently. For instance, Illumination tapped Seth Rogen to play Donkey Kong in this year's "The Super Mario Bros. Movie" despite the actor warning them that he was not a voice actor and would not make any vocal alterations for the performance. How do we know he said that? Because he spent the weeks leading up to the "Mario Bros." release giving countless interviews about his experience on the film, which in turn served as advertisements.

Jared Leto specifically is one of the more unpredictable — or perhaps media-savvy — actors in this regard, known for giving admittedly eye-catching, headline-making statements about his on-set behavior to outlets. Even in his absence, Simien found himself fielding questions about just how deep Leto went for the role. "When I was with him [filming], yeah, he was full-on Hatbox Ghost," he told EW. Whatever made Simien and Disney so eager to spend likely millions of dollars on Leto only to hide his work, we hope it was the distracting amount of product placement that apparently made it all possible.