Parents are likely to view The Haunted Mansion as a fairly inoffensive way for their kids to spend 98 minutes. It has a weird semblance of a story and some sporadically nifty special effects. It’s never vulgar or violent. It’s somehow appropriate that this ultimately soulless adventure from Disney should earn faint praise, as did its predecessors in the unlikely genre of movies based on theme park rides: The Country Bears and Pirates of the Caribbean. The final words on the movie’s closing credits read, "You’ve seen the movie, now ride the ride." Let’s just say the ride is more interesting.
In another instance that illustrates just how little Eddie Murphy seems to care about what roles he chooses – can anyone even remember the last good movie he appeared in? – the comedian stars as Jim Evers, a workaholic real estate agent who is in business with his pretty wife Sara (Marsha Thomason). Sara convinces her hubby to take her and their two children Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and Megan (Aree Davis) on a weekend getaway. Before they’re officially out of town, they make one quick, work-related stop at a home with a fancy address whose owner specifically called Sara and asked her to handle a deal.
It won’t be just any transaction. The mansion has a big, foreboding gate and a cemetery in the backyard. A creepy white-as-a-ghost butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp, who is legitimately scary) coolly greets the Evers, who are clearly impressed by the mansion’s grandeur. It looks quite like the one at Disneyland, down to the ghosts in the painted portraits and the knights in armor.
When it starts to rain, the Evers are stranded at the haunted house, and they become roped into an uninspired series of chases and eerie little mysteries that would sort of add up – if anyone actually cared. The shenanigans begin because Sara happens to bear a great resemblance to the sweetheart of Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), the manor’s stately hero. Jennifer Tilly uses her distinctive voice to its best advantage in a role that requires only her head. She plays Madame Leota, a psychic who works from inside a crystal ball, who sends the Evers on a mission slightly reminiscent of the quest for the wicked witch’s broom in The Wizard of Oz. (This is clearly no Wizard of Oz!)
Yet The Haunted Mansion is enhanced by the appealing work of classy animators and stage designers whose creaky doors, secret passageways and flighty ghouls look nothing less than fantastic. Oddly, though, veteran makeup artist Rick Baker’s risen-from-the-grave skeletons come off hokey; it’s a surprise in a big budget, special effects film.
Screenwriter David Beranbaum, who scripted the funny and charming Elf, a rare delight of a film that appeals equally to adults and little ones, can’t take the same credit here. Director Rob Minkoff repeats what he did in the graphically pleasing Stuart Little movies. Though he makes things look good and whips up a heck of a chase scene, he misses the emotional foundation, the single essential element of any movie – even one with as goofy an origin as an amusement park ride.
– Leslie Katz