What happens in Disney's uproarious "The Haunted Mansion" is more creepy than scary, but it's lots of fun, which is the point, as it was with this year's other film based on a theme park ride, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl." This is a fright show artfully designed for the whole family, a comedy that all but the most impressionable children will likely get a kick out of. It recalls those breezy Bob Hope-Paulette Goddard comedy-chillers of the late '30s and early '40s, "The Cat and the Canary" and "The Ghost Breakers," but revved up for contemporary audiences with the obligatory razzle-dazzle effects and production design.
Luckily, Eddie Murphy and his fellow actors are strong enough not to be overwhelmed by the incredible things they encounter. The screenplay credited to David Berenbaum ("Elf") has a lot of smart dialogue, and director Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King," "Stuart Little") keeps everything fast and light while creating an awesome spectral fantasy inspired by Disneyland's venerable Haunted Mansion.
In tip-top form, Eddie Murphy slips easily into a role that in fact would have been as ideal for Hope in his prime. "Brash" seems an inadequate description for Murphy's Jim Evers, a gung-ho New Orleans real estate agent in partnership with his level-headed wife Sara (Marsha Thomason). Evers pursues his profession with the zeal of a man who has found his true passion, and his slick, enthusiastic fast-on-his feet style makes him a sure-fire closer.
He's so into being a salesman and all that goes with it that Sara has her hands full getting him to make time for her and their children, Megan (Aree Davis), a smart, tart 13-year-old, and her shy, easily frightened younger brother, Michael (Marc John Jefferies). Just when it looks as if Sara is actually succeeding in persuading her husband to take a break, the couple and their kids are detoured by what appears to be the opportunity of a lifetime.
While traveling through Louisana's bayou country, the Everses stop off at what has got be grandest, most decrepit estate in the entire Deep South. The reclusive owner, Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) has seen one of the Evers' fliers and summons Sara, explaining that he wants to put his enormous mansion and its vast acreage on the market. The Evers family is greeted by Ramsley (Terence Stamp, in delicious Ernest Thesiger mode), the amusingly creepy butler, and soon Gracey appears, dressed in antebellum gentleman's attire. A terrible storm erupts, so of course the Everses must stay the night.
On the outside the mansion is in the elegant style of New Orleans' Spanish- and French-influenced architecture, rendered on an unprecedented yet well-proportioned scale. It is immense yet credible. The interior is another matter. Production designer John Myhre has come up with a great hall that is movie palace-robber baron baroque in its jaw-dropping grandeur, and that's just the beginning. There are secret sliding panels, and of course a life-size ancestral portrait in which the eyes become spy holes. And then there are the catacombs. Most crucially, there is another portrait, and it looks like Sara Evers in a Scarlett O'Hara gown.
Naturally, Ramsley and Master Gracey and two fussy, excitable live-in servants (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters) are not exactly as they seem, and they plunge their houseguests into a thrilling adventure into the supernatural, in which they are aided by Jennifer Tilly's sharp-tongued Madame Leota, whose head is encased in a giant crystal ball, and by a spirit that manifests as a whirling ball of misty light. There is a romantic tragedy at the heart of "The Haunted Mansion," involving individuals "of different worlds," as Ramsley delicately puts it, that gives the film a touch of poignancy. Since visual-effects master Rick Baker is on hand, there are to be sure some clever and creepy Grand Guignol moments.
Like its theme park namesake, "The Haunted Mansion" does take audiences on an adventure but also treats them to a morality play in which yet again good triumphs over evil and people emerge transformed for having stood up to adversity. What more could anyone ask of a ride?
'The Haunted Mansion'
MPAA rating: PG, for frightening images, thematic elements and language
Times guidelines: Too intense for only the most impressionable children; some Grand Guignol images
Eddie Murphy ... Jim Evers
Terence Stamp ... Ramsley
Nathaniel Parker ... Master Gracey
Marsha Thomason ... Sara Evers
Jennifer Tilly ... Madame Leota
A Buena Vista Pictures release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Director Rob Minkoff. Producers Don Hahn, Andrew Gunn. Executive producers Barry Bernardi, Rob Minkoff. Screenplay by David Berenbaum; inspired by Walt Disney's Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland. Cinematographer Remi Adefarasin. Editor Priscilla Nedd Friendly. Music Mark Mancina. Visual effects supervisor Jay Redd. Special makeup effects by Rick Baker. Costumes Mona May. Production designer John Myhre. Art director Beat Frutiger. Set decorator Rosemary Brandenburg. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In general releaseCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times