If there’s a white whale of filmmaking, it’s probably the elusive family adventure movie: something tame enough for parents to feel comfortable showing their kids, but exciting enough to keep the adults from dismissing it as a “kids movie.” Over decades of experimenting, this kind of story usually takes the form of a high-stakes adventure involving some nondescript bad guy going after a protagonist who happens to be a kid. From Jumanji to Ms. Marvel, this formula has proven to work.
With We Have A Ghost, Freaky and Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon takes his shot at this timeless tale, and result is surprisingly great. It may be a new take on an old formula, but it only rarely lets that show.
We Have A Ghost, based on the short story “Ernest” by Geoff Manaugh, follows the Presley family: down-on-his-luck Frank (Anthony Mackie), his wife Melanie (Erica Ash), and their two kids, vain Fulton and his younger brother Kevin. Kevin, a musical prodigy, isn’t thrilled with his family moving into a creepy Victorian house in the suburbs, even if they got it for cheap.
That changes when a trip to the unusually cold attic reveals a ghost: a mute dadbodded-man (David Harbour) with a wicked combover wearing a bowling shirt embroidered with the name “Ernest.” Kevin, like any good Gen-Z protagonist, laughs and pulls out his phone.
What follows almost feels like an episode of Black Mirror: when the rest of the family finds out about Ernest, a video of him quickly goes viral, and Frank gets caught up in the fame. But Kevin’s quest to help Ernest remember who he was and how he died clashes with Frank’s quest for glory and a paranormal pscyhologist’s (Tig Notaro) search for answers.
The first half of the film is very by-the-book — there’s a sensitive kid, his supernatural best friend, his annoying older brother, his parents who don’t understand, and a quirky neighbor girl who updates the trope for Generation Z. There are some great comedic set-pieces — Jennifer Coolidge makes a cameo as the “West Bay Medium,” an elaborately wigged psychic whom Kevin asks Ernest to scare away.
He succeeds in a truly gruesome manner, forcing his face to melt off à la Indiana Jones. Thank goodness the visual effects used to bring Ernest to life are only passable, or that sequence would have pushed the film’s PG-13 rating.
In the second half of the movie, the Beetlejuice influences make way for the high-stakes “kids vs. the government” influences of E.T., following Kevin, his neighbor Joy (Isabella Russo) and Ernest on a road trip where they must avoid not only the government agents who want to capture Ernest but also the effects of social media. Essentially, Ernest gets “Milkshake Duck”-ed — after the world learns he presumedly kidnapped Kevin and Joy, he’s wanted, dead or alive (but definitely dead.) This leads to sneaky heists, car chases, and even some teenage romance.
It’s in the third act that We Have A Ghost finally proves itself as a new classic — an old school bait-and-switch plot that reveals twist after twist. In a movie like this, figuring out who should be the bad guy should be easy. But writer/director Christopher Landon lets his horror roots shine with shifting loyalties that lead viewers to question who they can even trust. But rest assured, there’s a happily ever after in the end.
There’s one question that ripples throughout We Have A Ghost: Who is this for? It’s rated PG-13, but there are some truly adult themes like alcoholism, murder, and childhood abandonment. Add on top of that some brutal gore and violence, and it’s hard to see this becoming a feel-good family favorite. But it’s important to remember this movie’s predecessors deal with some truly dark themes — this is the kind of movie that sticks with a kid for the better. It’s not enough to give nightmares, but just enough to make it feel like a “grown-up movie.”
And for grown-ups, there’s more than enough to be interested in. Anthony Mackie has a stellar monologue as Frank, reckoning with what becoming a father means, and how he is dealing with his own inferiority complex. It’s a movie about Generation Z (Ernest even sparks his own TikTok challenge) but it’s also about how millennials are grappling with the fact there’s now a generation beneath them and how they can avoid the mistakes of the past.
We Have A Ghost is haunted by the legacies of similar movies, but it finds a way to stay relevant by leaning on not only the director’s horror sensibilities but also the maturity of a 2023 audience. It’s bound to be countless kids’ E.T., Indiana Jones, or Beetlejuice — the first movie they were allowed to watch that genuinely scared them in an entertaining way.
We Have A Ghost premieres February 24, 2023 on Netflix.