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Toon Talk: The Haunted Mansion
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by Kirby Holt (archives)
December 2, 2003
Kirby reviews Disney's live-action release The Haunted Mansion.

Toon Talk
Disney Film & Video Reviews by Kirby C. Holt

(c) Disney

The Haunted Mansion
Hold That Ghost

The Haunted Mansion attraction at the Disney theme parks has always intrigued and enthralled its loyal fans with its rich back stories and whimsically charming cast of “999 happy haunts?; such a history, like its sister show The Pirates of the Caribbean, certainly made the ride’s premise ripe for motion picture transfer.

However, unlike Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, which successfully grafted an intriguing story onto that ride’s random scenario, The Haunted Mansion tacks a lame family sitcom storyline onto a clichéd haunted house plot that was dusty back when the likes of Bob Hope and Abbot and Costello first did it decades ago. And while certain beloved bits of the attraction (such as the hitchhiking ghosts and the “Welcome, foolish mortals? greeting) do make their way to the screen, they are unceremoniously granted brief nods in exchange for more of Eddie Murphy’s bug-eyed, fake-grinned mugging.

Murphy plays real estate agent Jim Evers, a smooth-talking, glad-handing workaholic who would rather make another sale then attend his own wedding anniversary. His patient wife and fellow realtor Sara (the bland Marsha Thomason), wishing for some family time away from the family business, convinces him to take a weekend vacation with their two children (Aree Davis as the precocious Megan and Marc John Jeffries as the skittish Michael). But Jim can’t resist making a little side trip to visit a prospective house for sale, a detour that proves to be anything but normal.

(c) Disney

For said house is the Gracey Mansion, a once-stately manor set deep in the Louisiana bayou and now deeply set in decay. Greeted by the ashen butler Ramsey (Terence Stamp, subtly sinister), the family is unnerved by their cobwebbed surroundings … except for Jim, who only sees the ultimate fixer-upper guaranteed to deliver a hefty commission.

Soon after meeting the estate’s owner Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker, appearing every bit the tragic romance novel hero), the Evers are stranded at the mansion due to a thunderous rainstorm, upon which the proverbial ‘strange things’ begin to happen, and the true reason for their presence there is revealed: it seems Sara is the spitting image of Gracey’s cherished fiancée, who’s mysterious death decades ago lead to the master’s own suicide, not to mention a curse that somehow created this haunted mansion (shades of Beauty and the Beast, yes, but it is oddly never quite fully explained).

This supernatural chain of events leads Jim, with the mystical help of the mysteriously disembodied gypsy fortune-teller Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly, breathlessly affecting a “ooooo, ain’t I spoooooky? voice), to find the means to reverse the curse and thus save his family while, of course, finding his inner hero and becoming a better husband and father in the process.

That director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter David Berenbaum saw fit to squander the obviously plentiful possibilities inherent in the original attraction in favor of yet another strained family friendly star vehicle for Murphy (wasn’t Daddy Day Care enough?) is the truly scary part of this film. On the other hand, it does supply some de-gored ghoulishness that should make it a perennial Halloween favorite for younger viewers. And while we’re on the plus side, the visual tricks and treats are abundant, with a lush production design by John Myhre (Chicago’s Oscar-winning art director), opulent costumes courtesy of Mona May, and zombie make-up by ace monster man Rick Baker, not to mention composer Mark Mancina’s mood-enhancing score, effectively incorporating the haunting melodies familiar to anyone who has ever taken a ride in a Doom Buggy.

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