The Haunted Mansion

Up until 1981, Disneyland relied on ticket books for admission and to ride their attractions. Anyone who has ever been to Disneyland pre-1981 will fondly recall the infamous ticket book, which contained 10 or 15 coupons in various denominations of A-E. A and B coupons were basically throwaways. You don’t how many discarded ticket books we picked up with A and B coupons still attached.


All of the “must ride” attractions were designated with an E coupon, and a 15 ticket book contained 5 “E” tickets. They were gold, the ticket to the best the kingdom had to offer, and we usually used them for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Jungle Cruise,” “Matterhorn,” “Space Mountain” and “The Haunted Mansion.”

That way we always felt we were getting the most bang for our buck (or E ticket). The fact that we considered “The Haunted Mansion” one of the top five attractions in the park says a lot about my reaction to “The Haunted Mansion” film currently haunting theater screens.

Like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into a seaworthy version of the ride, “The Haunted Mansion” stands as one of the Disneyland Park Holy Grails. I’ve been through “The Haunted Mansion” hundreds of times, and still there’s always something new to see, another memory to add to the bank.

While not as stuffed as “The Country Bears,” “The Haunted Mansion” fails to achieve the visceral swagger of “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It’s a palatable pastiche of familiar ride components tied together by a transparent plot thread involving past lives, spirited spirits, and a wholesome, sitcom family caught in the middle.

There’s a lot to admire in “The Haunted Mansion,” (the production design is dynamic), but the script by “Elf” writer David Berenbaum is only serviceable. It’s a valiant attempt to turn a five- minute ride into an hour-and-a-half film, still Berenbaum’s formula is see-through.

“The Haunted Mansion” has a good friend in director Rob Minkoff, who understands his audience and plays to their expectations. Minkoff isn’t making art, just a family-friendly ghost story with Eddie Murphy as New Orleans workaholic real estate agent Jim Evers, quickly losing touch with his wife/partner Sara (Marsha Thomason) and his children Megan (Aree Davis) and Michael (Marc John Jefferies).

When Sara is summoned to the old and decrepit Gracey Mansion, Jim (and the kids) tags along with the hope of securing another real estate deal. After being greeted by the ashen owner, Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), and a host of servants, including head butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp), Sara, Jim and the kids find themselves stranded in the mansion during a sudden and severe rainstorm. Berenbaum never misses a trick, piling on one convenient inconvenience after another, clumsy bridges to keep the plot moving forward.

Things get creepy when Sara realizes that she resembles a portrait of Master Gracey’s ex-wife, who committed suicide many, many, many years ago. So many years ago, in fact, that would make Master Gracey, well, a ghost, one of many that inhabit the mansion. Berenbaum makes the appropriate nods to the ride (singing figures in the graveyard, the disembodied head in a crystal ball), but fails to make the script his own. It feels like a patchwork of ideas, quickly tossed together with no rhyme or reason.

Eddie Murphy is quite amusing as the anal retentive father and husband who literally has to have the crap scared out of him in order to see what he’s missing in life. His reactions of disbelief are delightful, a reminder of how funny Murphy can be without saying a word. Murphy has a perfect foil in Terence Stamp, delivering a very unexpected and very funny performance as the head butler. Stamp’s deadpan delivery serves as a counterbalance to Murphy’s histrionics.

I also liked Jennifer Tilly’s Madame Leota, the fortune teller whose head occupies a crystal ball and usually dispenses bad news.

Minkoff, whose previous forays into family fare include “Stuart Little” and “The Lion King,” keeps things light and breezy, avoiding the emotional bitch slap that made “The Lion King” so brave. Minkoff constantly reminds us that “The Haunted Mansion” doesn’t have a height limit, so it has to be accessible to kids of all ages. Working within those confines, Minkoff still manages to create a film that doesn’t feel like it was made for fans of Saturday morning cartoons. With a better script, “The Haunted Mansion” would rate an “E” ticket.

GRIM GRINNING GHOSTS

Haunted Mansion lacks spirited screenplay

THE HAUNTED MANSION

Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Shawn. Directed by Rob Minkoff. Rated PG. 88 Minutes.

LARSEN RATING: $4.00



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