Much like the NFL, WWE, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, Disney has always had a knack for obsessively promoting & examining its own legacy. It wasn’t until the past few years that the insanely massive media conglomerate owned every single major player intellectual property imaginable, but judging by the way the company has publicly patted itself on the back since its inception, you’d think that was the case for decades. One of the more amusingly tacky ways this self-celebration has manifested itself is in Disney pop culture media’s synergy with the brand’s amusement parks – Disneyland, Disney World, and beyond. I totally understand the appeal, both for creator & consumer, of turning Disney’s most popular properties into theme park rides fans can physically visit & interact with. By the late 90s, though, that wasn’t enough for Disney’s insatiable need to publicly glorify itself. In the last two decades the company has begun to make movies based on its theme park rides in an an absurd act of reverse engineering. This started small enough with a Disney Channel made-for-TV original starring a late-in-his-career Steve Guttenberg, but eventually ballooned into a five feature film series starring one of the world’s most famous (and most despicable) movie stars, Johnny Depp. The Pirates of the Caribbean series has been the biggest financial payoff in Disney’s gamble to market its theme park attractions on the big screen (recent diminished returns notwithstanding) and there have been a couple great Disney Ride films accidentally made along the way (Tower of Terror & Tomorrowland, namely), but for the most part people (mainly critics) have not been buying what Disney had been selling in those films: itself.
The first few attempts to adapt a Disney park theme ride for the big screen were meek acts of testing the waters. The 1997 Tower of Terror film was made for broadcast television. The 2000 space adventure Mission to Mars somehow nabbed a big name director (Brian De Palma, of all people) and went into wide theatrical release, but was based on a long-forgotten ride that had closed almost a decade before the film’s release. The ill-conceived (but oddly fascinating) 2002 Country Bears movie was marketed only for the smallest of children, to whom we shovel irredeemable garbage on an annual basis (i.e. Minions, The Emoji Movie, etc.). It wasn’t until the 2003 Eddie Murphy horror comedy The Haunted Mansion that Disney released a major motion picture meant to appeal to the entire family that was based on one of its currently visitable theme park attractions. The Haunted Mansion was an interesting experiment in the way it asked loyal fans of the Disney brand to fall in love with a feature-length advertisement for its own product: a haunted house “dark ride” you could visit at any one of its major theme parks. The experiment succeeded commercially, (rightfully) failed critically, and openly participated in the dual nature of Art & Commerce that always plagues the movie industry, although typically in a more hushed tone. Directed by nobody workman Rob Minkoff, who also helmed The Lion King & Stuart Little with an equal absence of passion, The Haunted Mansion is no more vibrantly alive than any of the CG spectres that torment Murphy’s family in its haunted house plot. The movie plays like a series of boardroom decisions that spiraled out of control into a family-friendly horror comedy that is neither funny nor scary and feels about as genuine in its genre nerdery as The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Just about the only interesting thing about The Haunted Mansion is its pioneering nature as a feature-length advertisement of a currently-operational Disney Park ride, the lowest of artistic ambitions.
Eddie Murphy stars as a money-obsessed Business Dad who spends too much time trying to grow his real estate business and too little effort connecting with his wife & kids. This stock Kids’ Movie Conflict is complicated when he interrupts his family’s vacation to check out a potential property purchase, the titular haunted mansion. The plot doesn’t develop much from there, besides the gradual reveals of every inhabitant of the home being a ghost with unfinished business who failed to cross over to the other side. The ghostly lord of the home mistakes Murphy’s wife for a long-lost love of his own, who can be seen in various oil paintings throughout the mansion, another Stock Movie Conflict employed by countless vampire & ghost pictures. Given that the ghostly home owner & his various ghost servants are white people from a bygone century, this interracial romance angle raises a few interesting questions about the racial dynamics of the house’s past, questions the movie isn’t interested in exploring. Instead, Murphy has to hurry to both prevent the most handsome, wealthy ghost from “getting jiggy with” his wife (kill me) and to save his kids from the other supernatural threats crawling all over the home: spiders, skeletons, a surprisingly effective Terrence Stamp. The rest of the ghostly cast is rounded out by the comic relief of the always-welcome Wallace Shawn & a Jambi-type performance from Jennifer Tilly. Will Eddie Murphy have time to save both of his children’s lives and prevent his wife from getting sexually assaulted by a handsome ghost? My guess is that you already know the answer, but are coming up short with a reason to care, which is more than fair.
Plot is not nearly as significant here as recreating the holographic ghosts & ghouls of the Disney theme park ride source material, which the movie actually does fairly well. The introductory title cards feel like a haunted house initiation, warning “Welcome, foolish mortals . . .” before recreating the ballroom of dancing ghosts that constitute the theme park ride’s centerpiece. Besides the CG ghosts that recall the live action Casper movie in tone, The Haunted Mansion also employs special effects master Rick Baker to provide some tangible atmosphere. A Harryhausen skeleton army & swarms of threatening spiders look especially great, with other haunted house effects like Videodrome-esque breathing walls, a Billy Bones-style zombie, and visual references to suicide by hanging tilting the story towards genuine horror. Singing barber shop quartet statue busts (an integral part of the ride) and a musical instrument seance straight out of an Ed Wood film (Night of the Ghouls, to be specific) are much more in line with a cutesy, safe-feeling horror comedy vibe, which is totally fine given the film’s nature as a cynically commercial Disney property. Terrence Stamp’s presence as an evil, ghostly butler cuts to the core of what’s wrong with the film at large. He’s genuinely creepy on a scene to scene basis, but often has to pause his schtick to deal with Eddie Murphy, who aims to annoy at every possible turn. At one point, Stamp even bellows, “If I have to listen to another word from that insufferable fool, I believe I’m going to burst,” which was the one line that got a legitimate laugh out of me. Listening to Murphy run lame bits about whacking spiders with magazines & ghosts “getting jiggy with” his wife into the ground for minutes at a time completely poisons any atmospheric mood or comedic ambition built by Baker, Shawn, Tilly, or Stamp. Murphy simply isn’t funny, which is a major problem considering how much screen time he’s allowed to devour.
Guillermo del Toro has stated publicly that he’d love to remake this film without the Eddie Murphy angle and, after Crimson Peak, it feels as if he already did. It’s easy to see what the director may have connected with on its basic level of being a haunted house dark ride attraction adapted into a feature. The Haunted Mansion is one of my favorite Disney World rides, but I have no real problems or reservations with the way it’s been adapted to the screen, personally. How could I? The idea of believing your own hype so completely that you think your theme park attractions deserve a The Movie! version is so absurd that it’s kind of a miracle every single one of these Disney Ride movies isn’t as much of an artistic failure as The Haunted Mansion turned out to be. If it weren’t for the success of the Pirates debut just a few months later this could’ve been the end of the Disney Ride movie as we know it today, a fate that would’ve been very much deserved.