Directed by: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Marsha Thomason, Nathaniel Parker, Terrence Stamp
Rated: PG for frightening images, thematic elements and language.
Parental Notes: This is a fun spooky movie for kids. Very young children will likely find the spiders, animated skeletons, ghosts, and tastefully filmed suicides too frightening, but kids who love the Disney ride will enjoy this film.
Disney seems to be on a roll as far as adapting theme park rides into movies goes. “Pirates of the Caribbean” was a rollicking good time for nearly all ages, and “The Haunted Mansion” is a surprisingly good spooky film for kids. It’s more than a movie version of the ride; there is an actual plot here, and even an attempt or two at character development.
Fans of the haunted mansion ride at Disneyland or Disneyworld will likely be hooked immediately; starting with the opening credits, recognizable bits of the ride are scattered through the film like breadcrumbs. The house itself is a masterpiece of art direction, with spooky wallpaper, changing paintings, a scenic graveyard, and dangerous statuary, not to mention plenty of ghosts. On top of the visual pleasures, the writers have provided the audience with an intersecting pair of stories.
One story is about interracial romance, and has all the makings of a great melodrama. In antebellum New Orleans, the heir of the prominent Gracey family (Nathaniel Parker) falls passionately in love with a Elizabeth, a black woman. They cannot possibly marry, and when they both commit suicide the house where they die is cursed and becomes the haunted mansion of the title. After having haunted the house for years, the man and his ghostly butler, Ramsley (Terrence Stamp) are convinced that Elizabeth has returned and the curse can be broken, allowing them to move on.
The second story is about Jim and Sara Evers (Eddie Murphy and Marsha Thomason), a married couple who sell real estate together. They are a very typical family comedy family: slick, fast-talking Jim is a workaholic who misses family events so he can sell houses while sweet, soft-spoken Sara complains he doesn’t pay enough attention to her and the kids. Jim means well but is oblivious to what his family really needs. He hijacks a family vacation to look over a huge mansion that’s ostensibly for sale – the Gracey mansion.
The catch here is that Sara Evers looks just like Elizabeth, and Gracey has become convinced that she is his departed beloved. All he and his butler have to do is get rid of her annoying husband and pesky kids. Their plans are complicated by Madam Leota (Jennifer Tilly), who dispenses prophecies and riddles to help Jim and the kids free Sara.
One element that rings oddly is that it’s never discussed why Gracey and Elizabeth couldn’t marry. Presumably it was considered impossible because interracial romance was taboo in their time, but the movie never so much as alludes to that. Indeed, the film never mentions the races of any of its characters. This is simultaneously refreshing and somewhat odd, as the entire plot is driven by race.
Director Rob Minkoff has dialed Eddie Murphy down significantly, bringing him to a level of irritation in keeping with the character he’s playing. Murphy brings the same lively modernity to the part that he did to his voice acting in movies like “Shrek,” and provides a contrast to the ghosts, who are cadaverous and dignified.
Indeed, Terrence Stamp steals every scene he’s in. His stiff movements, carefully resonant delivery, and scathing politeness give the impression that he did research by watching old Hammer Horror films. He hams in reverse, holding perfectly still and minimalizing every movement until he is a sort of inverse caricature.
Overall, this is a film with ambition and better than the advertisements would have you think. There is real poignancy to Gracey’s tale, and although most of the plot elements are mostly old standbys the movie is still entertaining. Fans of the ride and children who like spooky movies will doubtless enjoy it.