Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) is a hotshot real estate agent who is constantly neglecting his wife, Sara (Marsha Thomason, awfully pretty but just plain awful in the film), and his two kids in his hunt to keep selling homes. Forced to arrange a countryside vacation so he can reconnect with his family, Jim and the Evers clan are summoned to the spooky and ancient Gracie Mansion to meet the Master of the house (Nathaniel Parker) and possibly arrange a sale. Upon arrival, Jim and the kids soon learn the nefarious plans of the Master and his butler, Ramsley (Terrance Stamp, hamming it up exquisitely), and try to work their way through the intricate and dangerous halls and graveyards of the mansion to stop Sara from becoming a permanent fixture of the estate.
I can see the logic in hiring Eddie Murphy for “The Haunted Mansion.” Murphy is now a proven family film attraction, finding his greatest success in the last 10 years in pictures that feature talking animals and soiled diapers. Long gone are the days when Murphy could slay audiences with a single line reading, therefore he comes to “Mansion” not as a comedian, but as a comfort zone. “Mansion” is a kid-friendly horror film, but it does stay true to its source material, which means an exploration of cobwebbed hallways, ghosts with murderous agendas, and a soothsayer floating in a green crystal ball. Director Rob Minkoff (“Stuart Little 1 & 2“), armed with an amazing, richly detailed production design by John Myher (Oscar winner for “Chicago“), is game to stay true tonally to the Disney theme park attraction (which, like “Pirates of the Caribbean,” is paid tribute to heavily in the film), however, comedy needs to be introduced so the bitter pill of horror can go down easier. But why does it have to be Eddie Murphyr The actor, armed with only his ferocious allegiance to the most unfunny of jokes and his frequent camera mugging, lets down the film’s attempt to be creative and fun with his dreadfully tired shtick. Granted, Murphy isn’t helped by the labored screenwriting, which tries to sneak in life lessons on good parenting amidst the battle between heaven and hell, but his comedic instincts are unwelcome in a picture this gothic and dark, and his jokes are about as fresh the mansion itself. Murphy was hired for his severely fraying charisma safety net, but even that once reliable attribute has become annoying and depressing to watch.
What I enjoyed most about “Haunted Mansion” was its willingness to go a little darker than most family films these days. The Disney ride is a mixture of the macabre and a dash of bizarre comedy interludes, mostly to keep the apprehensive in their moving doom buggies as the ride plays out. “Mansion” the movie tries to emulate that feeling, using Eddie Murphy as a kind of shield so sinister visuals can be placed onscreen and the film can remain a PG family fest. “Mansion” isn’t outright scary, but Minkoff does a remarkable job at raising the terror pitch of the film to rival most mainstream productions that are often fraudulently billed as “horror.” Though done very tastefully, there are scenes of suicides, spider attacks, bloodthirsty undead skeletons, and Jim examining his decaying face in a magical mirror. The horror material is handled with a surprisingly straight face, and “Mansion” lives up to its potential whenever Murphy shuts up and Minkoff can fire off some interesting and lavish visuals. “Mansion” fogs the line of intensity that “Harry Potter” and “Poltergeist” did in chasing family frights, but this is hardly “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” It’s far more innocent fun, and the graphic nature that’s hinted at in the marketing materials shouldn‘t worry parents.
Disney’s master and commander Michael Eisner has been quoted proclaiming that “Haunted Mansion” will be the last Disney theme park ride transformed into a movie (outside of the upcoming “Pirates” sequels). It’s been interesting watching Disney try to shape decades old entertainment into hip, special effects laden goldmines, but it’s clear in “Haunted Mansion” that there just isn’t enough fuel in the theme park adaptations to feed the fire of storytelling and imagination.Rating: C-