Contempo Hollywood may be awash in brilliant technicians and craftspeople but it also needs good storytellers, who aren’t to be found in “The Haunted Mansion,” Disney’s second mega-budgeted project this year based on a Disneyland ride. Pic actually makes the bombastic, messy “Pirates of the Caribbean” seem tidy, well-told and funny in comparison. Precisely because it’s much more devoted to the details of its ride, “Mansion’s” drab comic strokes and narrative render the movie almost superfluous. Nonetheless, Eddie Murphy’s presence and a certain built-in curiosity should bring out family lookee-loos for the extended Thanksgiving weekend.
Family factor, a major part of David Berenbaum’s script, may explain why Disney is launching pic during Turkey days rather than what would have seemed to be its natural Halloween slot. But, Berenbaum’s “Mansion” script lacks the nose for witty surprises and disarming absurdity that he showed in writing the recent hit “Elf.”
The challenge for Berenbaum, and for director Rob Minkoff, was to find something to compliment the ride’s spectacle. The ride was perhaps the first of its kind that made even regular Disneyland visitors think twice about what it was they were actually seeing (it remains one of the great optical triumphs in the entire opus of creative work done under the Disney label). Possibly, the ride’s extraordinary optical illusions just don’t transplant well to the screen where visual trickery has become commonplace.
Most difficult of all, the filmmakers had to come up with a reason for characters to be cruising through a mansion stuffed to the brim with grinning, grumpy and ghoulish ghosts of every hue, all of them stuck here because of a century-long curse. But sending Murphy’s go-go real estate salesman, Jim Evers, and his family inside the manse — substituting their reactions for what the rider experiences in a vivid three-dimensional environment — is nothing more than the latest example of one-dimensional moviemaking.
Jim has passed his agency leaflets out far and wide in his corner of Louisiana. Able to work every angle with his partner-wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) to close a sale, Jim puts his job ahead of family, at the cost of missing out on the lives of his two growing kids, younger and easily scared Michael (Marc John Jeffries) and older, smarter Megan (Aree Davis).
Jim’s even late for his anniversary celebration with Sara, and wants to make amends by taking the family out on a weekend trip. A phone call from an old man wanting to sell the mansion causes a detour in the holiday plans.
One glance at the property, complete with a creepy backyard cemetery, would dissuade anyone but the most obtuse from entering — which sets up a weak premise to start the rest of the action. And, other reasons for turning right around come quickly, first in the unsettling guise of the ashen-skinned butler, Ramsley (Terence Stamp, calmly channeling Vincent Price), then in the slightly out-of-body persona of the owner, Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), who appears dressed for a 19th century-themed costume party and looks a bit too adoringly at Sara.
Murphy tries to maintain his Everyman modus, smiling his way through the oddest moments and being the last to accept that ghosts really exist.
Production designer John Myhre’s spectacular set, which mixes equal parts of “House of Wax,” “Rebecca” and “Citizen Kane,” has the effect of upstaging Murphy, who’s stuck with zero funny lines to fight back with.
Jim, Sara and the kids promptly get separated, with Sara essentially held under house arrest by Gracey, who’s convinced that she is actually his dead love, Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Jim dashes around from one mild scare effect to another (such as his rotting face in the mirror) and Michael and Megan follow a floating orb upstairs where they encounter servants Ezra (Wallace Shawn) and Emma (Dina Waters), who inject a wee bit of Dickensian humor and intrigue. This pair hold some secrets, as does Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), a Gypsy woman in a green-hued crystal ball, and one of the ride’s most memorable characters.
“The Haunted Mansion” suffers from a strange paradox: The more new story elements are introduced, the more they feel larded on to bring in more images and effects from the ride. The onslaught of design and effects overwhelm the plot with the climax reaching an otherworldly level of visual effects overload.
Unlike “Pirates'” few glancing nods to its Disneyland adventure, “Mansion” is a full-on homage to the ride. Pic’s indisputable stars are Myhre, costumer Mona May, visual effects supervisor Jay Redd, makeup maestro Rick Baker (whose skeletal zombies hardly get enough screen time) and lenser Remi Adefarasin.
Cast, by contrast, is left far behind, though Stamp holds up his end with a turn that develops into an extended spoof of the horror tradition of Corman and Hammer. Shawn and Waters might have been more amusing in a more modestly scaled production, but Thomason is too plain, her character almost vanishing like a ghost.
Adherence to the ride extends to bookend quotes in graphic form (“Welcome Foolish Mortals”) and post-credit sendoff (“Hurry Back!”), the latter sounding like wishful thinking. Pic’s 81 minutes of picture is followed by seven minutes of credits.