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The Haunted Mansion
(Widescreen)

review by Zach B.

 

 

MPAA Rating: PG (For Frightening Images, Thematic Elements and Language)

Running Time: 88 minutes

Starring: Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Wallace Shawn, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly

Written by: David Berenbaum

Directed by: Rob Minkoff

 

Studio: Disney

Retail Price: $29.95

Features: Audio Commentary with Producer Don Hahn, Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Redd and Screenwriter David Berenbaum, Audio Commentary with Director Rob Minkoff and Costume Designer Mona May, The Haunted Mansion - Secrets Revealed, Anatomy Of A Scene: Ghosts In The Graveyard, Deleted Scene, Outtakes Music Video, Sneak Peeks. DVD-ROM: Morphing Ghost Host Maker, History Of The Haunted Mansion Attraction, Photo Gallery, Desktop Themes, Wallpaper, Screensavers, Enhanced Virtual Mansion Tour, Weblinks

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, English Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selections (24 Scenes), THX-Certified

Released: April 20th, 2004

 

 

Turning a theme park ride into a movie may sound like a decent idea on paper, but how can you really stretch something that's meant for a few minuntes into a feature film while retaining some of the laughs and thrills? Like many novel ideas, it's a lot easier said than done. Disney struck out with their first attempt in the summer of 2002 with "The Country Bears," which was a critical and commercial disaster. However, the following summer Disney had a very unexpected hit on its hands with "Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl" which went on to make over 300 million dollars domestically. All of a sudden, Disney's idea of turning theme park rides into movies looked like a genius idea.

Topping it all off in the fall of 2003, Disney released the last in their so-called "theme park trilogy," that being the Eddie Murphy family vehicle "The Haunted Mansion." Disney's tentpole Thanksgiving release seems to have fallen in-between the first two theme park movies: not the utter embarrasment that was "The Country Bears," but not as praised or successful as the "Pirates" juggernaut. A 75 million overall gross isn't too bad at all, but it doesn't seem like much when compared to 300 million (that, and the critics weren't too mean to the film either). But other than two sequels to "Pirates," Disney has announced that they will never make another movie based on a theme park again. And maybe, it's for the best (though can we really be sure about that?).

Plotwise, "The Haunted Mansion" focuses on Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy), who with his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason), are successful real estate agents in Louisana. But Jim is obsessed with his work, and as a result, it takes a toll on his family life. After a missed anniversary with his wife, Jim decides to take his family on a weekend trip and get away from work. But when Sara is called to look at a house (or, an excuse to actually get to the mansion), Jim can't resist to look at the property. Needless to say, the quick trip to the house turns into a much longer affair.

And yes, they call it "The Haunted Mansion." The place is - gasp! - haunted. But little do the Evers family realize, the specific reason Sara was called doesn't involve selling a house. It involves a curse, lots of treachery and plenty of ghosts. So let's see: will Jim be able to save his wife from impending doom? Will Jim learn what it really means to be a family man? And to answer those questions, you probably don't need to take a visit to the mansion to figure them out.

My theory is that if you've seen one family film, then you've probably seen most of them. With that said, "The Haunted Mansion" has some very shinywrapping around a really old package. There's nothing particuarly fresh about the story, and it's all so predictable as it follows the mold for other Disney live action comedies that came before it. The film's themes of family and facing your fears are incredibly generic, and the film is not exactly subtle about its subject matther either. It's just that some of it feels tacked-on and all too concidentally placed (of course Eddie Murphy's son in the movie is going to have to stop being afraid and overcome his fears of spiders).

It's not that "The Haunted Mansion" is a mess, but given its 80 minute runtime (not counting credits), a lot of the film is really rushed and lacks any clear sense of development. I must admit that the first half-hour starts off pretty promising if very clichéd, but once the Evers family arrives at the mansion its all downhill from there. What happens at the mansion is the bulk of the film and certainly the most important, so it's a shame that the whole thing doesn't exactly work. I had a hard time buying into the fact that the Evers family isn't really scared or incredibly worried during their stay. No, the film is by no means "frightening," but it lacks a sense of realism: a mild-mannered family experiencing all of this out-of-the-ordinary stuff for the first time should be scared and in some instances, should be trying to hide from it.

Case in point: the two Evers children are amazed with wonder instead of screaming with their first encounter: a giant floating blue spirit ball. Only Eddie Murphy's character gives hints of being terrified, but his thoughts that he's "hallucinating" are simply not enough. And then there's family members meeting ghosts and battling skeletons. Sure, they are naturally curious, but in some respects they're acting like they've seen it all before. Yes it's a movie, but I still found it bothersome.

The film has a lot of good ideas, but nearly all of them just don't come together (this from the writer who brought the monster hit "Elf"?). The story arc lacks a sense of adventure, and things fall into place too easily when it comes to saving Sara. The film is also way too simplistic, as there are barely any stumbling blocks for the characters to overcome (which also means a lack of action set pieces). I would have liked to see a lot more of this fabulous mansion than a few rooms and the outside, but the filmmakers didn't seem interested in that. I loved the idea that there is actual history behind the mansion, and that there's a curse too, but the actual origins of the mansion can be described in a single sentence. It's too bad there couldn't have been more flashbacks to the mansion in the past, because a more solid mythology behind it would have certainly helped. However, I will give props to the movie for having some sleek references to the actual Disney ride and that it actually begins with the words "WELCOME FOOLISH MORTALS."

The film's lack of character development is also staggering - everybody here is strictly one-dimensional but I guess that's pretty normal for family films in this day and age. There are great, eclectic characters populating the mansion but everybody strictly does a thing or two and that's it. A quirky bunch of ghosts and a gypsy-head-in-a-crystal-ball could have given the film a lot more spunk, but they're pretty much cast aside when they shoul have been a lot more integral and memorable. There's even nothing to the Evers family who are supposed to drive the film. I suppose writer David Berenbaum tries to add a little depth here and there (such as when Murphy explains to the kids that he's so career-driven is because he wants to provide for them, and implies that he was poor growing up) but it doesn't exactly click in together.

There are a few moments in movie that may make an older audience member smile, but it's all rather slight. It's a shame that all the film's potential is not captalized on and more or less goes to waste. This is partly the fault of director Rob Minkoff, best known for co-directing "The Lion King" and jumping into live action territory with the "Stuart Little" films. He is becoming a more confident and seasoned director as evidenced in the movie, but it seems he needs to work on coherence and tightening things up. The film also lacks logic at points: okay, a rain storm prevents the family from leaving. But didn't Eddie Murphy pull out a cell phone just minutes earlier? No reception in a giant mansion I'm assuming? Not even outside?

The seasoned cast provide good performances that suits the material well, but nobody does any work that screams brilliance. The only actor who does prove to be memorable is Terence Stamp (who seems to be doing weird film choices lately), as the creepy and stone-cold butler. Everybody else is pretty passable. The always delightful Wallace Shawn plays a ghost and gets most of the film's laughs, and it's a shame that he's not in the movie so much (his schtick here kind of reminded me of his role in "The Princess Bride"). The same can be said for Jennifer Tilly, who gives off some advice and that's it. Murphy's kids in the movie are decent - they're "cute," but not terribly annoying. Marsha Thomason as Sara is decent and then there's Murphy himself, who's making a big career in the past few years with family oriented films. He's certainly not as wild or manic as his films in the 80s, but Murphy still remains a very likeable and natural screen presence. He's more of a straight-man in these movies that doesn't give off most of the laughter, but he still does a solid work.

The only things that really stand out about the movie is what is achieved from a technical and production standpoint. If you want to judge the movie only by those merits, "The Haunted Mansion" is fabulous. There are some pretty nifty special effects, but the production design from John Myhre is outstanding. Myhre gives the mansion a very distinct ambience that is reminiscent of the real theme park ride, but he touches it up splendidly with a real classic look that screams elegance and history. Mona May put together some fine looking costumes in the movie, and Rick Baker certainly can't be beat when it comes to make-up.

Overall though, "The Haunted Mansion" will probably entertain kids quite a bit but more mature viewers probably won't find much here when they stumble along to watch it with their younguns. It's certainly not one of the worst films ever made, but there's been a lot better especially for families. See it if you must, but I still liked that damn mansion better when it only lasted a few minutes long and not 80.

 

The movie may not be flawless, but the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer nearly is (a seperate full screen version is also available). The print used for the THX-certified transfer is remarkably clean, with barely any blemishes and dirt pieces. The image is razor-sharp overall, but is sometimes plagued by high contrast which results in some edge halos and a high amount of noise. Other than some very slight edge enhancement, everything else about the image quality is great: accurate and dead-on fleshtones, stunning detail, pitch perfect black levels and a huge arsenal of colors that are not only perfectly saturated but are very vibrant. Nothing scary here.

 

Also by no means frightening is the robust English Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The film may not be totally engrossing, but this track certainly pulls you in. With great subwoofer effects, the main draw is definitely the plethora of surround sounds. Battles with skeletons, ghosts flying around, a horse and carriage ride and of courses, the film's climax involving a car crash and a fight with knights in not-so-shiny armor, all among tons of other discrete noises.

Mark Mancia's compositions give an extra warmth to the track, while dialogue sounds very clear and isn't lost among the film's action. Imaging on the track is excellent and the overall dynamic range goes quite far. I wonder how a DTS track would have sounded... in any case, 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks are included in French and Spanish, and there are English closed captions and DVD captions in Spanish and English.

 

This DVD features not one, but two commentaries (things can still surprise you!). Listening to both will guarantee that you will learn every little bit about the making of the movie. The first commentary is with Producer Don Hahn, Visual Effects Supervisor Jay Redd and Screenwriter David Berenbaum. The three are very chatty, and do have some interesting stories about the production, technical details and the story itself. Some amusing things are said in a pretty dry tone, and along with the usual praise for the cast and crew, this actually comes out to be a very nice track since it covers so much in a pretty fun but very informative manner.

The second audio commentary is with Director Rob Minkoff and Costume Designer Mona May. Some of what the duo says overlaps with what is covered on the first commentary, and it's interesting to note how the trio on that commentary is sometimes more specific than the two here when things intertwine. This commentary is actually a bit more technical, but still very chatty and there's a lot of different information that makes this one also worth listening to (it certainly gives you a sense of how challenging yet fascinating it can be to be a costume designer). I personally prefer the first commentary, but if you have the desire to listen to both, you won't be disappointed with the material covered on each. And come on, how many commentary tracks actually feature a costume designer?

The Haunted Mansion - Secrets Revealed is a featurette lasting a little over twelve minutes focusing on creating the special effects of the movie. Featuring interviews with Rick Baker, Eddie Murphy, Don Hahn, Jay Redd, Rob Minkoff, Mona May, Jennifer Tilly, production designer John Myhre about their love of the ride and the effects, there is also footage of the set and even of the ride at Disneyland. The featurette focuses on Rick Baker's always amazing work, modeling work and getting Jennifer Tilly's head in a crystal ball. Very nicely done and by no means fluffy - too bad it wasn't longer.

Anatomy Of A Scene: Ghosts In The Graveyard is an eleven minute look at how one of the film's most visually complex scenes was pulled off. With on-the-set footage, footage of computer animation, making costumes and a load of blue screen work, Jay Redd and the film's technical crew guide us through how the big graveyard scene was pulled off. This is technical and may not appeal to young fans, but if you want to see just how much thought and shooting it takes to make such a sequence, this will probably interest you immensley. Hard stuff.

Disney's DVD Virtual Ride: The Haunted Mansion is actually a pretty lenthy tour of the physical mansion and gives you quite the filmed tour of the house with up-close looks at many of the rooms. Even better is that Ezra and Erma of the film host it - it's all new footage of them (more Wallace Shawn is NEVER a bad thing). This is fun and nicely put-together, and you even get to learn a few things about the house - I was pretty impressed by the quality of this tour, since so many DVD "tours" are simple point and click mazes without much depth or thought. With that in mind, this "virtual ride" is liekly the best you'll see (until some other movie comes along to rival it). Oh, and this feature is in anamorphic widescreen to boot.

Speaking of Ezra and Erma, a single Deleted Scene is presented (it's actually more of an alternate scene). The scene (in non-anamorphic widescreen) doesn't add much to the film other than showcasing more of the enjoyable Dina Waters and Wallace Shawn, and adds some light humor to the film. It also helps establish my point about the movie: the kids aren't freaked out as well when the two introduce themselves as ghosts. It lasts about two-and-a-half minutes, and actually has completed special effects.

Rounding things out is an Outtakes Reel that runs a little over five minutes which has a few mild laughs, and Disney Channel supasta Raven's Music Video for "Superstition." Oh, and there's about a hundred Sneak Peeks (and no, that's not an exaggeration on my part).

On the DVD-ROM part, Disney has certainly gathered up quite a bit of features and continues to push new ground in this department. Other than a nice interface, weblinks and the ability to register your DVD, there's some pretty fun stuff here (and Disney has wisely made this stuff work for Mac DVD-ROM users - yes!). The Morphing Ghost Host Maker lets you take a picture of yourself or somebody else and screw around with it so you or others can look ghostly. There's an extensive Photo Gallery with production designs, photos from on the set and concept art as well as Desktop Themes, Wallpaper and Screensavers, as well as some stuff to print out.

Rounding it all out is a very cool featurette entitled The History Of The Haunted Mansion Attraction which shows off the ride, its history and familarity as well as connections to the movie and an Enhanced Virtual Mansion Tour that seems a bit smoother than the DVD-Video one, and actually kind of feels a little more interactive.

 

"The Haunted Mansion" may not be a family classic, but it's decent if standard entertainment for the kiddies. The DVD is certainly great though: a striking transfer, a high-quality 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and a strong assortment of extras that delve into the making of the movie as well as a little about the ride that inspirted it. The DVD is certainly worth checking out for the curious, but if you want to own it then it's a great value.