The Haunted Mansion (2003)

“Dark spirits? Hey, no dark spirits! Don’t you make no dark spirits come out!”

Justin’s rating: Only 50 of the 999 happy haunts were left after the end credits…

Justin’s review: You know that thing where you feel compelled to see a movie even though you know from all evidence that it’s going to be a disappointment? Yet you still see it because your curiosity drives you to or because it’s touched on one of your geeky fandoms? That’s The Haunted Mansion with me.

Listen, I knew this was going to be a stinker. I’ve yet to hear anyone say any kind words about this Eddie Murphy vehicle, and yet I saw it. Why? Because Disney’s Haunted Mansion is my all-time favorite theme park dark ride of all time, and that means that my fan law, I had to subject myself to this film to see if there was any part of it that would feed my passion.

Murphy plays Jim Evers, part of a husband-and-wife realty group. Jim is, well, he’s Eddie Murphy playing Eddie Murphy. You know, mugging for the camera and making dad jokes and generally laying on the charm so thick that you could put two slices of bread around it and call it a filling meal. The lazy script writers slapped him with the “dad who puts his successful work before spending time with his family” character trait, which is a trait that I’d really like to never see again.

In any case, instead of taking his family up to a lake house for the weekend, Jim detours with them to the titular mansion. The “master” of the house has called his wife to visit under the auspices of selling the place, but since she gets slapped with the “prime female candidate to be possessed by the spirit of my dead wife” trope, gradually everyone figures out that this isn’t a simple real estate deal. You see, there’s a curse and a key and… you know what? It’s all just an excuse to wander around the various sets and see the special effects.

The tepid, uninspired plot is only the start of this film’s problems. The Haunted Mansion came out during this period when Disney was trying to transform all of its rides into hit movies following the massive hit of Pirates of the Caribbean. Pirates largely succeeded because it hit upon the exact right tone that the ride exuded — swashbuckling adventure with a good dash of comedy. It understood itself, in other words.

The Haunted Mansion doesn’t quite know itself. The ride is the perfect encapsulation of Halloween, far more atmosphere than jump-scares. The ride’s backstory is pretty dark for Disney — suicide and murder abound — but it tempers it with creative visuals and a bit of black humor. The movie? The movie occasionally gets this, but more because it’s fumbling all over the place and happens to hit upon it by accident rather than on purpose.

And a good deal of that fumbling is Eddie Murphy. Listen, I like the guy. He’s really funny in a lot of other movies, but he’s an incredibly bad fit here. He’s jibber-jabbering all through this film as he encounters the reality of the haunted realm he’s investigating, and at pretty much every point you want to scream at him to shut up already. None of his “jokes” are funny, and the further this film goes, the less you want to see his face.

However, I was mildly surprised that there is something to be redeemed here. The supporting cast — namely Wallace Shawn and Terence Stamp — are well-suited to being ghosts, and they deliver a few enjoyable moments. And the actual sets are astoundingly detailed, with lots of callbacks to the ride. There are the hitchhiking ghosts, the singing busts, the organ, and many of the same rooms that you’ll see on the ride. But they’re not really used for much other than to be obvious references. And that is a wasted opportunity.

Happily, that opportunity may be grabbed once more. Word is that filmmakers are going to take another stab at this movie. Maybe they’ll get the tone right this time. Until then, we have this testament to a whole lot of money thrown at a script that’s neither funny nor scary nor indicative of what the Haunted Mansion is really all about.

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