The Haunted Mansion (2003)

Rated PG for frightening images, thematic elements and language.

Starring Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly.
Directed by Rob Minkoff.
Written by David Berenbaum.
Based on Walt Disney's The Haunted Mansion.
Produced by Don Hahn and Andrew Gunn.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
99 minutes.

LVJeff's Rating: 7/10

Photo ©Walt Disney Pictures. All rights reserved.

Happy Haunts Materialize

Disney's latest movie based on a theme park attraction is probably more like what the studio and moviegoers were expecting from these attemps at synergy. The Haunted Mansion, a just-plain fun movie that should make some decent box office cash and provide the entire family with a good time, follows The Country Bears, Disney's mostly reviled first film based on a ride, and Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, its surprisingly-good-enough-to-be-a-major-hit version, as the third entry into this new "genre."

For the most part, The Haunted Mansion serves the same purpose as the Disneyland attraction on which it's based. The Haunted Mansion in New Orleans Square is amusing, trying more to impress with its imaginative displays than to frighten anyone. Still, it is on a level that's frightening enough for children and shows them what it means to have a good, fun scare. Meanwhile, the Haunted Mansion movie attempts to impress with its many playful references to the ride, emerging effectively as a kid's version of a scary flick. It's only mildly frightening, although one scene in which a horde of zombies comes to life threatens to crank things up on the intensity meter. You mortals have been warned.

The cast, from Eddie Murphy and Terence Stamp to Jennifer Tilly and Wallace Shawn, appear cheerfully up for the task, although a comparison to Pirates of the Caribbean reveals how the actors are comparatively trapped in their roles. In The Haunted Mansion, the characters are mostly one-note jokes, from Stamp's stiff-as-a-board butler to Tilly's quip-witted gypsy-head-in-a-crystal-ball. Pirates was a delight because actors like Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush could let loose with their roles. The Mansion needed some of that, with Murphy's character excepted -- his part is merely a salesman personality with a comedian's schtick. I think anybody could have played that character, and, unfortunately, Murphy wastes an opportunity to give a more memorable performance, as he mostly puts this one on auto-pilot.

But it's the references that really matter, right? The Haunted Mansion attraction is one of those treasures for the minutiae-minded, since it contains so many details, historical trivia, and memorizeable songs and dialogue. Most of the movie doesn't disappoint -- it's nice to see a script designed to accomodate the graveyard, the haunted ball, and the infamous crystal-ball-head. Even the barbershop quartet busts make an appearance singing "Grim Grinning Ghosts," although I'm sad they didn't get to sing more of it -- they're interrupted, and we never hear the whole song, not even in the end-credits.

The stuff the movie didn't include becomes a wishlist -- I wish filmmakers had found a way to put in more of the opening hall dialogue (we get "There's always... my way" but not "This room has no windows and no doors!"). For that matter, I also wish they had included that opening hall -- people love the stretching room. Sadly, the movie seems to lose its way toward the end -- having gone through all the interesting plot parts, it had to be wrapped up somehow, and the wrap-up strays from the path of The Haunted Mansion, going toward something like a shotgun wedding involving paradise, inferno, and a certain famous line from Planet of the Apes. More reassuring is the veiled message of color-blindedness that comes through in the story and its conclusion -- a confidently daring move on the part of the filmmakers and one that doesn't call attention to itself.

All in all, The Haunted Mansion is goofy fun -- just remember to stay in your Doom Buggy until after the credits, and don't forget to bring your death certificate.

©Jeffrey Chen, Nov. 22, 2003

This review also appears at ReelTalk Movie Reviews.

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