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The Haunted Mansion   D

Walt Disney Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Rob Minkoff
Writer: David Berenbaum
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly, Nathaniel Parker, Dina Waters.

Review by Rob Vaux

The late Gene Siskel once asked, "Is this film better than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?" With The Haunted Mansion, you might wonder if it's better than the same actors on a theme park ride. Disney lulled us into a false sense of security with the unexpected quality of Pirates of the Caribbean. Mansion is everything we feared Pirates would be: gimmicky, unimaginative, and shackled to its source like an anvil. In fact, that earlier film almost serves as a point-by-point comparison of how completely this one goes wrong.

It starts with the relation to their respective sources, the Disneyland attractions themselves. Even the thinnest blockbuster would be hard-pressed to justify such questionable foundations -- how do you turn a 10-minute parade of animatronics into a recognizable plot? -- but Pirates proved it could be done. It used the ride as a garnish, capturing the spirit with a few well-placed gags while refusing to let it limit the rest of the film. Mansion, on the other hand, treats its "based on" credit as the sole purpose of the exercise. It presents a rotting estate in Louisiana, haunted by ectoplasmic specters and that most tiresome of back stories, a tragic love affair. The perfunctory dramatics unfold with lazy cliché after lazy cliché... the better to free up the screen for staples of the ride: hitchhiking ghosts, singing marble busts, and a disembodied head inside a crystal ball (Jennifer Tilly). Director Rob Minkoff seems to feel that their very presence is enough to placate the fans, and the script gives little thought to blending them in with the story. With the exception of Tilly (who's mainly relegated to plot exposition), they're simply thrown out like obstacles on a bobsled course, making an appearance and then vanishing into the mist. Mansion wastes so much energy trying to get everything in that precious little remains to justify the effort.

Then there's the hero. Pirates had Johnny Depp's wondrous Jack Sparrow, a rogue for the ages who held us entranced from beginning to end. Mansion, however, has Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy), a bundle of empty stereotypes pressed into service from countless straight-to-cable disasters. He's -- bet you'll never guess -- a workaholic with no time for home life, ignoring his dewy-eyed kids in order to maximize his real estate business. Indeed, he's so eager to bag the great deal that he preempts a clan outing in order to check out the mansion, complete with partner-wife (Marsha Thomason) and wee ones in tow. Before you can say "facial spasm," he's assaulted by all manner of Abbott and Costello terrors, orchestrated by a sinister butler (Terence Stamp) and designed to ultimately teach him the true value of family. The role requires nothing more than bulging eyes and girlish shrieks: painfully unfunny material that even a comic of Murphy's stature can't budge. It breaks the heart to realize yet again how good he can be, and how utterly his abilities go to waste here.

The deeper the comparisons go, the more you realize that The Haunted Mansion brings nothing to the table. Tilly has a few cute moments and the early atmosphere is serviceable, but they're scant comfort in the face of regurgitated direction, forgettable supporting figures, and all the spontaneity of a dentist's waiting room -- elements Pirates delivered with imagination and zest. Hell, even the ghosts are second best: the one place where Mansion needed to trump its predecessor. But anything memorable in the supernatural department is buried behind a lot of boring, translucent extras in period clothes. The effects do little to improve upon the ride's atmosphere, and -- in a final act of desperation -- it coughs up a mushy "love conquers all" resolution that smacks of screenplay deadlines.

Disney clearly wants to give us some family-friendly scares here: PG poltergeists who can goose us without traumatizing the tots. You can see the same whimsical spirit in Pirates and in The Nightmare Before Christmas, which offered heaping amounts of Mansion's intended brand of glee (Jack Skellington and his crew actually take over the ride every Christmas.) But in this case, the proposed synergy sucks the spark out of the entire affair, leaving it as turgid and misguided as its predecessors were fun. The real E-ticket will be out on video next week. The Haunted Mansion is the unpleasant wait in line beforehand.

Review published 11.25.2003.

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