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With: Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp, Nathaniel Parker, Marsha Thomason, Jennifer Tilly, Wallace Shawn, Dina Waters, Marc John Jefferies, Aree Davis, Deep Roy
Written by: David Berenbaum
Directed by: Rob Minkoff
MPAA Rating: PG for frightening images, thematic elements and language
Running Time: 88
Date: 11/26/2003

The Haunted Mansion (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Low Spirits

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When he was a young, rambunctious stand-up comic, Eddie Murphy did a very funny routine about white people in haunted houses. Why, he asked, did they not leave when they found out the place was haunted?

Now Murphy stars in a movie about an African American family who enters a haunted house and doesn't leave for the entire length of the movie.

Of course The Haunted Mansion is not intended for the same audience who found Murphy funny during his salad days. This is a kids' movie, based -- like Pirates of the Caribbean -- on a Disneyland ride, and the reason Murphy does not leave is that he and his family become separated.

As it goes, The Haunted Mansion manages to be an inoffensively dull time-waster. It contains a few mild scares and some kindergarten-type humor, though kids old enough to enjoy the thrills will probably not find the movie funny and kids young enough to enjoy the laughs might find the noisy special effects too scary.

Murphy plays Jim Evers, a real estate agent who stops by an old mansion just before a weekend getaway with his wife (Marsha Thomason) and kids (Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis). The mansion's owner (Nathaniel Parker) and his shifty butler (Terence Stamp) wish to counteract a centuries-old curse, and Mrs. Evers is just the ticket.

Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) never finds the rhythm to mine the laughs here. Stamp's grand entrance provides a tiny thrill, and a shot of Murphy discovering a secret door is almost funny -- if only Minkoff had comic skill enough to let the shot linger for a just a few seconds more.

Perhaps used to working with animated characters, Minkoff fails to inspire much energy from his cast. The most talented cast members, Murphy and Stamp, appear to be asleep, and even their considerable charisma is switched off.

The rest of the cast is strictly amateur hour. In one scene, the two children follow a ghostly ball of light and they just stare glassy-eyed straight ahead, as if they'd been turned into zombies. I wondered if I'd missed something. But I hadn't; it was just bad acting or bad directing -- or both.

Despite this confusion the imaginative set design gives the impression of being on the ride itself. It's a kind of cuddly/scary thrill, the kind that makes you giggle while hiding under the covers. And the movie's fine, colorful cinematography by Remi Adefarasin (The House of Mirth) sometimes references the work of Italian horror master Mario Bava.

When all is said and done, this Haunted Mansion is an OK place to visit, though I wouldn't want to stick around very long.

DVD Details: Aimed for kids and adults, Disney's DVD comes with bloopers, a deleted scene, a music video, a virtual tour that's actually kind of fun, a behind-the-scenes featurette, an "Anatomy of a Scene" and an audio commentary by the producer, writer, and FX supervisor and a second commentary by the director and costume designer. I can't imagine any adults being interested enough in this film to bother, though. The disc also comes with a host of DVD-Rom features, but for some reason I was unable to access them on my Mac. Finally, the disc comes with the latest Disney trailers.

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