U.S. Release Date: November 26, 2003
Distributor: Buena Vista
Director: Rob Minkoff
Producer: Don Hahn
Composer: Mark Mancina
Cast: Eddie Murphy
Running Time: 1 hour and 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (for frightening images, thematic elements and language)

Harmless Thrills and Chills
by C.A. Wolski

Eddie Murphy's newest family flick, Disney's The Haunted Mansion, harkens back to the old live-action features the company made in the 1960s using the formula of the inattentive father who has to give up his ambitions and reclaim his family by performing some death-defying, tongue-in-cheek heroics. And, for the most part, the movie works, but that's not saying much.

Based on the Disney amusement park ride of the same name, The Haunted Mansion concerns the efforts of the ghostly Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) and his weird butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) to break the curse that has been hanging over the Gracey Mansion for a century or so. Breaking the curse hinges on luring Sara Evers (Marsha Thomason), who bears a striking resemblance to Gracey's lost love, to the mansion. The one glitch in the plan is that Sara's husband and real estate partner Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) and her two adorable, if annoying, children Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and Megan (Aree Davis) tag along.

What follows is the typical supernatural comedy antics with the Evers clan ever so slowly realizing that they are actually in a haunted house with its ghostly objects, secret passages and a surprisingly large number of zombies lurking about. In the midst of this is a typical Disney lesson about the price of "workaholism" and that what matters most in life isn't a spotless BMW, but family.

The script by Elf screenwriter David Berenbaum feels a little constrained as if it were following a corporate template. One wonders what sort of movie we would have on our hands if the powers that be had left Berenbaum to his own comic devices.

What's on the screen does work in a harmless sort of way. There are a couple of scary moments that the little ones may jump at, and the jokes are a bit cheesy, but not moldy. The direction by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) is solid, particularly the opening sequence, which tells the history of the tragedy that led to the Gracey curse visually without relying on some lame ghostly narration.

Murphy, more or less, redeems himself with this picture. His Jim Evers is a decent guy who is ambitious and loves his family. A scene early in the movie when he tries to help his son overcome his fear of spiders is a nice moment, and even the more overtly comic scenes, particularly with the crystal ball encased Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly) play well.

The kids are a bit of a problem, straying a little too far into the movie kid stereotype—a little too smart and well groomed for their own good. Thomason is lovely as Sara, but she doesn't get to have much fun with her character. Stamp is disappointing as Ramsley. He's just too weird and creepy to be menacing. The standout, however, is Parker as Master Gracey. He plays his part with a kind of dignified pathos that is, at times, heartbreaking.

The real star of the flick, of course, is the mansion itself with its secret passages, graveyard and monumental rooms, which is probably what the Disney honchos wanted. After all, this is a terrific advertisement for the amusement park ride. And, like the ride, the scenery is awfully cool, but there isn't enough substance to linger with you beyond the theatre.

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