THE HAUNTED MANSION (2003)
Starring Eddie Murphy, Marsha Thomason, Nathaniel Parker, Jennifer Tilly, Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, Dina Waters, Marc John Jefferies, Aree Davis, Jim Doughan, Rachel Harris, Steve Hytner, Heather Jeurgensen, Jeremy Howard, Deep Roy, Clay Martinez, Bridget Brno, Gregg London and Zach Minkoff.
Screenplay by David Berenbaum.
Directed by Rob Minkoff.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. Rated PG. 99 minutes.
When I was a kid, the Haunted Mansion at Walt Disney World (or Disneyland) was one of my favorite places on Earth. When I couldn’t actually be at the park, I had a record telling the story of the mansion (with a young Ron Howard playing a teenager on a date who slips into the mansion to find safety from a rainstorm) which I listened to literally hundreds of times in my misspent youth. Okay, honestly, I’ve been back to the Mansion many, many times as an adult, too. Even though it no longer holds many surprises for me, I enjoy it every time. It truly transports me to a different time in my life.
So I have felt a bit of trepidation since hearing about the fact that Disney was making a movie version of the ride. The names I heard mentioned for the cast scared me even more that it was not being taken too seriously… Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Tilly, Don Knotts (who ended up not appearing in the film.) Some of the worry was assuaged this summer, when Disney’s film version of The Pirates of the Caribbean turned out to be so good-natured and fun.
Well, the movie version of The Haunted Mansion is not nearly as good as that film. But it’s not bad in its own right. I do think that in order to really enjoy the movie it is much more necessary to know the ride than Pirates, which was a good yarn that didn’t require knowledge of the attraction that it was based on. As a straight narrative, The Haunted Mansion doesn’t exactly work, though I do give them credit for trying to come up with a coherent legend which was faithful to the ride.
The plot is about Gracey Mansion, a shambling old plantation in the swamps outside of New Orleans. (It’s not a breaking point, but it is interesting that a film that is supposed to be set on the Louisiana bayous does not have a single cajun accent, or even a southern one.) The house has a tragic past. The Master of the dwelling (Nathaniel Parker) fell in love with Elizabeth, a woman who was considered to be wrong for him by all those around him. He asked Elizabeth to marry him, but she killed herself. Or was she murdered? Distraught, the master also commited suicide. It is an interesting choice that the film does not ever mention that the problem that the couple had was probably racial. He was white, she was black. That probably wouldn’t have gone over too well in the old south. It shows a nice casualness on the filmmakers’ part to not mention it, and yet ignoring that fact does make the woman’s death seem much more inexplicable.
Fast forward to the present. Eddie Murphy and Marsha Thomason play a married couple of real estate agents. Jim is really married to his job, though, putting his business before his family. Wife Sara makes him promise to take the family away for the weekend, but of course the opportunity to look at a huge old manor house comes up and Jim talks Sara into a brief stop on the way to the vacation.
What neither of them knows, though, is that Sara is a near double of Elizabeth, and the ghost of Master Gracey has invited them to the manor so he can be reunited with his lost love. They are let into the house by the wonderfully spooky butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) and when the rain forces them to spend the night, the Evers family explores the house and sees more and more strange phenomena. Finally, with the help of a pair of ghostly servants (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters) and a disembodied spirit (Jennifer Tilly), the family attempts to escape.
Sadly, Murphy, the biggest name in the cast, is also the movie’s weak link. He plays real estate agent Jim Evers with an eternal insincere grin. I know it is supposed to be an indictment of the character that Jim is such a fake, self-centered workaholic. But honestly, this is the same autopilot role Eddie has pulled out in almost every film he’s done since Beverly Hills Cop II. It’s almost like Murphy feels such disdain for the material that he can’t be bothered to invest the character with any depth. Instead he sleepwalks through some weak jokes, does bored double-takes at the special effects, kids around stupidly with his children and periodically apologizes to his wife without much sincerity or authenticity.
It’s too bad, because while the story was shaky to be generous, the art direction is wonderful and the special effects are truly enjoyable. Mostly this is because the film does not go crazy with the effects. In fact, only in the final scene in the mansion do the FX guys go overboard. The film is full of sly nods to the ride that make it fun for the fans. The sad truth is, though, the story does not stand up on its own. Unless you like the ride, there really is very little reason to see The Haunted Mansion. (11/03)
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright © 2003 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Revised: November 26, 2003.