Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The Haunted Mansion
Review by Sombrero Grande

When I first heard that a movie was being made out of Disney’s Haunted Mansion I have to admit I was intrigued, but when I heard that it was going to be a comedy with Eddie Murphy my heart sank. Ghastly visions of horrid desecrations filled my head like wide-awake nightmares. I didn’t even want to imagine how many “toilet” jokes would surface (as it turns out there’s only one and it actually managed to poke fun at my apprehension—Murphy’s character suggests that in the ad selling the Mansion they should “play up the whole toilet angle” by talking about how many bathrooms the house has). Then after watching the homerun Disney managed with Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, I had a newfound hope that the film could turn out all right after all. Ultimately though, Disney’s film adaptation of The Haunted Mansion is not as good as I’d hoped, but thankfully not nearly as bad as I’d feared.

The best moments in the film stem from the integration of the figures, scenes and details of the theme park attraction and any fans of the ride will have a wonderful time spotting all the little touches that indicate the filmmakers did their homework. However, unlike Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, the references to the ride that inspired the film seem to dominate in The Haunted Mansion rather than merely provide a familiar background for a separate story.

The ride is one of the few in Disney parks not to have a story at its core. This was something that ol’ Walt himself wanted and so the ride is mostly a collection of separate occurrences, gags and visual tricks all under one roof. Of course, a movie, on the other hand, NEEDS a story...at least mainstream narrative films do, and thoughts of anything else brings back awful, awful memories from film school for me, so I’ll hurry back to the subject at hand. While there’s no “official” story to the Haunted Mansion, there are rather a lot of prominent and memorable moments and characters. The Haunted Mansion filmmakers show off their knowledge of these details by crafting a story that involves as many of them as possible. You knew the hitchhiking ghosts and Madame Leota (the gypsy head in the crystal ball) were going to be in there somewhere, but I was surprised to find the Mansion’s omnipresent raven, changing portraits, bending doors, dueling ghosts, king and queen on a teeter-totter and many others all making cameo appearances. For me, a huge fan of the ride, finding all these little homages was more fun than finding Waldo. Those not as well-versed in the ride (it’s no small secret that Sombrero Grande is a theme park nut with a special affinity for the Haunted Mansion) I’m afraid will miss out on the most enjoyable touches in the film and be stuck with a story that seems to be trying to connect too many dots together to form itself.

The opening of the film is quite nicely done, consisting largely of a skillfully and subtly crafted montage that rewards those paying attention with an outline of the tragic side of the story to follow. By the end, though, the storytelling has devolved into the kind of anything-for-a-happy-ending typical Disney tale that ensures the rag-tag Mighty Ducks magically win the championship or Ernest saves Christmas. Hopefully you’re distracted enough by the special effects and ride allusions not to notice some gaping plot holes (I’ve got some questions for this film and I’ve yet to decide if I’m up for a repeat viewing after the novelty of discovering all the ride references has worn off). Perhaps the most important part of unraveling a mystery is finding out the motives, but here I felt that we were only given the “who” without the “why.” “Why?” is a question that comes to mind a lot, especially toward the end and pertaining to the ways in which things are wrapped up more neatly than the streets of Disneyland used to be swept.

I feel I should say something about the great makeup work done in the film. Many of the ghosts in the graveyard looked so alike their Audio-Animatronic counterparts that I overheard one woman in the theater remarking, “I remember that one!” while pointing to the little leprechaun-esque ghost sipping tea. As for performances, I thought Terence Stamp was rather enjoyable as the Mansion’s head butler. Some of Eddie Murphy’s shenanigans can be amusing, while others, like his line about “getting jiggy,” are not. There are a few brief scary moments in the film, but none anywhere near as stomach-churning as the Nelly song that starts off the closing credits. I’d take a personal run-in with zombies any day over ever hearing that “here’s something maybe we can sell a soundtrack with” pop crap again!

In the end, The Haunted Mansion is more a fun cinematic homage to one of the greatest theme park rides ever built than a film that can stand securely on its own. While it surely won’t ever outshine the ride in any way, it may slightly alter how you perceive certain elements the next time you pay a visit to that theme park residence of 999 grim, grinning ghosts.


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