2 stars (out of 4)
In an extraordinary display of chutzpah, the words "Welcome foolish mortals" open Walt Disney Pictures' "The Haunted Mansion," a movie based on Disneyland and Walt Disney World's classic theme park attractions. The foolish mortals, of course, would be those who pay $9 a ticket at the door.
On the heels of summer hit "Pirates of the Caribbean" (also based on a Disney ride), "The Haunted Mansion" is a family-friendly spookfest starring Eddie Murphy as a dedicated real estate agent trapped in a phantom-packed manor with his family.
Although "Haunted Mansion's" ghost story pales in comparison with its Caribbean sister, Disney deserves some recognition for encouraging multiethnicity in its classic and new properties ("Lilo & Stitch," "Mulan," etc.). In "Haunted Mansion," an interracial affair is the love that dare not speak its name - quite a complex theme for an elaborate Disney advertisement.
In a classic "busy-dad-neglects-family" scenario, Jim Evers (Murphy) postpones a family outing so he and his wife/real estate partner, Sara (Marsha Thomason), can follow up on a sales call. Sara wants to handle it after the vacation, but Jim insists - and they end up in a swampy countryside, welcomed to a cobweb-covered chateau by Ramsley (Terence Stamp), a cadaverous butler serving Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker).
Opening credits flash over the prologue depicting a pair of deaths in the same mansion, so we already suspect the house's inhabitants aren't of the flesh-and-blood variety. Instead, an ancient curse fuels the Evers family's ghostly adventure, in a plot line swiped directly from the pages of Bram Stoker's "Dracula." Sara, the spitting image of Gracey's departed love Elizabeth, may be the key to lifting the curse.
Director Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King," "Stuart Little") displays a steady hand at re-creating scenes from the Disney attraction, including a ballroom of dancing apparitions. And while the addition of four harmonizing statues infuses some humor in the script, there's little that outshines effects in the actual Disneyland house. Even the waltzing specters are less spectacular. And Murphy seems to haunt the movie rather than star in it. He's there grinning brightly through it all, but he's pushed aside by Stamp and eerie effects until he's just a Cheshire-cat grin in the background.
Stamp and the house staff, played by Wallace Shawn ("The Princess Bride") and Dina Waters ("Six Feet Under"), are supernaturally well cast, especially Stamp. There's a sugary pleasure in hearing Stamp's deliberate, whispery vibrato deliver lines such as "The storm has swollen the river."
All things considered, "Haunted Mansion" stays pretty much within its PG rating. Ghosts and other characters jump into the frame suddenly, which might frighten younger children, and Rick Baker injects some fleshy makeup into the mix, but otherwise there's nothing scarier here than Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video (which, given recent events, might seem more horrifying).
It's difficult to imagine Disney continuing on this track, developing Disneyland attractions into movies. "The Country Bears" was lost in the woods, and "Pirates" benefited from the talents of Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush. Perhaps next, Disney can persuade Russell Crowe or Halle Berry to star in feature versions of "Space Mountain" or, better yet, "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." Now that would be scary.
"The Haunted Mansion"
Directed by Rob Minkoff; written by David Berenbaum; photographed by Remi Adefarasin; production design by John Myhre; edited by Priscilla Nedd-Friendly; produced by Andrew Gunn, Don Hahn. A Walt Disney Pictures release; opens Wednesday, Nov. 26. Running time: 1:39. MPAA rating: PG (frightening images, thematic elements and language).
Jim Evers - Eddie Murphy
Ramsley - Terence Stamp
Master Gracey - Nathaniel Parker
Sara Evers - Marsha Thomason