- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

This has been a cinematic crossover year for Disneyland attractions. “The Pirates of the Caribbean” finally made it from the park to movie screens. Now, “The Haunted Mansion” lumbers in its wake, at once less diverting and less impressive as a film spectacle.

“Mansion” fails to outperform its Disneyland stablemate as a movie comedy. “Pirates,” ostensibly a swashbuckler, did far more for Johnny Depp as an eccentric comic star than the new movie, ostensibly a supernatural farce, does for Eddie Murphy as a proven comic draw.

Maybe it’s a bad omen that Mr. Murphy wears a business suit throughout the picture. I can’t recall him stuck with an identity quite this square. It suggests that he might need a vacation from portraying family men every once in a while.

Things get a bit lonesome for Mr. Murphy’s character, a glad-handing, workaholic New Orleans real estate agent named Jim Evers, once we’re embedded in the title setting. Too anxious to follow up any lead, he insists on subordinating a promised weekend getaway with his wife, Sara, and their two children to a side trip that strands them overnight at the booby-trapped mansion. Sara, attractively played by British actress Marsha Thomason (who bears a winning resemblance to Marisa Tomei) is also a partner in the realty business.

A huge ornamental gate and front door mysteriously open to reveal a cavernous Victorian relic with two residents: Terence Stamp, as a deadpan butler called Ramsley, and Nathaniel Parker, as proprietor Edward Gracey, who seems to be dressed a bit out of fashion and beams with suspicious delight at Mrs. Evers. The plot separates husband, wife and children for preliminary tours of the place before contriving a reunion in time for the denouement. There’s a creepier erotic undercurrent than you anticipate, derived from the fact that Gracey envisions Sara as the reincarnation of a lost love, Elizabeth, whose portrait turns up in a storeroom.

Although Gracey is basically a melancholy Southern gentleman, Ramsley is manipulating his ghostly grief in ways that are rather too perverse to reward contemplation or analysis. Suffice it to say that this butler is an infernally sick old puppy. In a smartly calibrated farce, Mr. Murphy would be playing someone who was on to the weirdness very promptly, favoring us with witty asides while keeping at arm’s length from retaliation, like Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters.”

Unfortunately, Eddie Murphy consents to function more as a straight man, not only to Mr. Stamp but also to Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters as an amusing set of well-meaning ghost servants and to a disembodied Jennifer Tilly, cast as the amusement-park fixture Madame Leota, a head inside a crystal ball.

The director, Rob Minkoff, brought more zest to the “Stuart Little” movies. It appears that he lets himself be smothered rather than overstimulated by the architecture and decor of the mansion. It makes for a stifling, rather than playful, one-night stand.

*1/2

TITLE: ‘The Haunted Mansion”

RATING: PG (Occasional ominous and morbid depictions, fleeting comic vulgarity)

CREDITS: Directed by Rob Minkoff. Written by David Berenbaum. Visual-effects supervisor: Jay Redd. Special make-up effects: Rick Baker.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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