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Case Number 04670

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The Haunted Mansion

Disney // 2003 // 88 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // June 25th, 2004

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All Rise...

I don't know about Appellate Judge Michael Stailey, but personally, I think this would've been better set during one of the recent Nightmare Before Christmas makeovers of the Disneyland attraction.

The Charge

The spirits have received our sympathetic vibrations and are beginning to materialize…

Opening Statement

When the crypt goes creak and the tombstones quake, spooks come out for a swinging wake. Happy haunts materialize, and begin to vocalize. Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize.

Now don't close your eyes and don't try to hide or a silly spook may sit by your side. Shrouded in a daft disguise, they pretend to terrorize. Grim grinning ghosts come out to socialize.

Facts of the Case

Jim (Eddie Murphy) and Sara (Marsha Thomason) Evers are the living embodiment of a powerhouse American couple. Both successful real estate agents, they live in a gorgeous home and drive his and hers BMWs, while raising two beautiful and intelligent children. What more could you want?

How about…a life.

For Jim, there is always another opportunity, another client, another sale. When his ambition eclipses his own wedding anniversary, he quickly discovers that all the money in the world won't buy him out of this doghouse. Down but never out, Jim smooth-talks his wife into a family vacation, conveniently timed with a client meeting in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods of New Orleans. What will it take for him to finally learn what's most important in life?

How about…a haunted antebellum mansion whose owner (Nathaniel Parker) is set on making Sara his own and the kids disappear forever?

That'll do it.

The Evidence

In 1957, with Disneyland celebrating its second birthday, Walt walked into artist/production designer/Imagineer Ken Anderson's office with an idea—"We're going to have this haunted house, and it's going to be a great place. We're going to use all the ideas we've ever had, and we're going to invent even more. We'll need all kinds of ways of doing things that we haven't even thought of yet."

No pressure, right? Anderson remembers, "I was pretty enthusiastic about it, because I like the whole idea of a haunted house attraction at the park. At the time, I thought there's got to be a haunted house somewhere…so why not build it at Disneyland? And I envisioned it as a large antebellum mansion, out in the Louisiana Bayou, all rotten and moldy…"

Anderson stayed on the project for the better part of a year, fleshing out what began as a walk-through concept and wound up as a guided conveyor tour. Here, guests would be introduced to the eternally restless residents of the Blood Family estate, and the tragic fate of Captain Gore and Priscilla Blood. Shortly thereafter, the project was put on hold and Anderson went to work on Sleeping Beauty, never to return to the ghostly confines of Blood Manor.

Fast-forward twelve years. Following numerous concept revisions, production delays, the death of Walt Disney, and input from the best and brightest Disney Imagineers—Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, and Yale Gracey, to name just a few—The Haunted Mansion opened its creaky doors on August 9, 1969, quickly becoming an E-Ticket fan favorite, pop culture icon, and a fixture at each Disney theme park.

With films developed for Disney attractions The Country Bears and Pirates of the Caribbean, you knew it was only a matter of time before the Mansion would get its turn in the spotlight. Screenwriter David Berenbaum, director Rob Minkoff, production designer John Myhre, and effects wizard Rick Baker have combined forces and marshaled their troops to bring this Disney legend to life.

Leaving no headstone unturned, all of your favorite characters and elements are here: the picture gallery of transforming portraits, the corridor of knocking and bulging doors, the clock that strikes 13, the glass conservatory, Madame Leota and her séance chamber, the ever-watchful marble busts, the grand dining hall, the majestic pipe organ, the musty attic, and a graveyard overflowing with grim grinning ghosts, a quartet of singing busts, and our three merry hitchhikers.

There is no denying the members of this production team are long-time fans of the genre, the Mansion, and all things Disney. Every frame is filled with tributes, homages, and fond childhood remembrances. Unfortunately, this highly skilled bunch spent so much time recreating the ride they forgot about what makes a film work. Whereas Pirates of the Caribbean succeeded by taking the germ of an idea and developing a lush and vibrant world around it, The Haunted Mansion creates a tiny, detailed world and force-fits characters and a storyline inside what little room they have leftover. Each plot point is nothing more than a Doom Buggy moving us from one familiar Mansion scene to the next; the film becoming a victim to its own nostalgia.

This is not to discredit the individual contributions of the crew. Production designer John Myhre has taken elements from the Mansions in California, Florida, Tokyo, and Paris and created an impressive new haunted abode, one in which Charles Addams's Gomez and Morticia would feel right at home. The graveyard scene alone is worth the price of admission. Of course, this could not have been fully realized without the efforts of master monster maker Rick Baker and creature clothier Mona May. Together, they have created some of the most visually entrancing phantoms ever to grace the screen. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin has captured some truly beautiful imagery, and editor Priscilla Nedd-Friendly does everything in her power to make what little story there is flow with style and grace from scene to scene. It's just disappointing that the duo responsible for giving us The Lion King—director Rob Minkoff and producer Don Hahn—were unable to make this Mansion anything more than a brief roadside attraction.

The performances themselves are a mixed bag of tricks and treats. The role of Jim Evers is a non-factor. Eddie Murphy plays Eddie Murphy, mugging for the camera and drawing from his bag of Eddie Murphy schtick. Is it his fault? Not at all. The character is stereotypical and paper-thin. Twenty years ago the role would have been played by Bill Cosby, thirty years ago by Richard Pryor, and sixty years ago by Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Marsha Thomason as Sara is practically non-existent, a phantom performance void of any life. Hell, the background ghosts and ghouls themselves are more corporeal. The Evers kids played by Marc John Jeffries (Michael) and Aree Davis (Megan) make the most of a weak sub-plot and their one-dimensional characters. The saving grace is two separate quartets. The first consists of the ghoulish Terrance Stamp (Ramsley), the phantasmic Wallace Shawn (Ezra), the ethereal Dina Waters (Emma), and the disembodied life of the party, Jennifer Tilly (Madame Leota). (Jennifer is phenomenal; chewing scenery with every line and resuscitating some of the film's more uninteresting moments.) The second is a stone-faced ensemble of singing busts, designed as a sincere tribute to two of the most beloved members of the original attraction: the great Paul Frees (Your Ghost Host) and the legendary Thurl Ravenscroft (Lead Vocalist on "Grim Grinning Ghosts"), and stealing the film with each frame in which they appear. What's more, their voices are provided by Disneyland's own Main Street Barbershop Quartet, The Dapper Dans—Shelby Grimm, Harry Campbell, William Lewis, and Tim Reeder. Nice touches all around, but even the best performances are unable to overcome a poorly designed story.

Presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, The Haunted Mansion is a stunning presentation loaded with eye candy. The deep dark blacks that serve as the film's canvas are highlighted by a palette of reds, yellows, and oranges and punctuated by rich wood tones. No apparent evidence of techno-tampering within this crisp digital image. The enhanced Dolby 5.1 Surround track is robust, drawing out a multitude of dastardly directional effects and making the most of Mark Mancina's surprisingly unimpressive musical score. Stevie Wonder fans are advised to mute the closing credits before Disney pop princess Raven and her posse butcher the great one's "Superstition."

Bonus features are expectedly bountiful for a new Disney release. First up are two, yes two feature commentaries; one by director Rob Minkoff and costume designer Mona May, the other by producer Don Hahn, visual effects supervisor Jay Redd, and writer David Berenbaum. The Minkoff/May track can be a sleep inducer, while the Hahn/Redd/Berenbaum track is much more entertaining. Next up are two featurettes: "Secrets Revealed" (13 minutes) and "Ghosts in the Graveyard" (11 minutes), giving you a wonderful look behind-the-scenes of the film. One extended scene, "Emma and Ezra" (2 minutes), provides more exposition on the mystery and reveals their ghostly backstory to the Evers kids. The outtakes reel (5 minutes) is not one of the funniest you've ever seen and can be passed over. A new staple on Disney DVDs is the "Virtual Tour," which here is a cursor driven walkthrough of the set. Boring. The aforementioned "Superstition" music video is also included, as is a bevy of DVD-ROM features (image gallery, attraction history, effects studio, another virtual tour, and more), studio trailers, and some truly inspired menus.

Closing Statement

This one is a tough call. Disney theme park fanatics will certainly want to see what the The Haunted Mansion has to offer, as will people who truly enjoy the haunted house experience. However, I cannot in good conscience give this a buy recommendation. Be warned, this is not standard Disney fare for small children. The mausoleum sequence alone is enough to scare even the bravest little mousketeers.

The Verdict

This court respects the filmmakers for their tireless efforts in creating feast for the eyes, but sadly this is not enough to save The Haunted Mansion. Disney is hereby sentenced to develop a screenwriting program, one that emphasizes substance over style, before anyone at the studio even thinks of working on a treatment for The Jungle Cruise or, God forbid, The Hall of Presidents. This court is adjourned!

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 85
Acting: 80
Story: 65
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: Disney
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• All Ages
• Disney

Distinguishing Marks

• Feature Commentary: Director Rob Minkoff and Costume Designer Mona May
• Feature Commentary: Producer Don Hahn, Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Redd, and Screenwriter David Berenbaum
• Featurette: "Secrets Revealed"
• Featurette: "Ghosts in the Graveyard"
• One Extended Scene
• Outtakes
• Music Video: "Superstition"
• Virtual Tour
• Studio Trailers
• DVD-ROM Features

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