The Haunted Mansion (2003)

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Mulan (1998)’s Gender Identity Exploration is Only Convincing for the Length of a Single Ballad

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I’m not entirely sure how it came to this, but I recently found myself watching Disney’s Mulan for the first time nearly two decades after its initial release. It was somewhat wise to avoid the movie for so long on my part. I’d hate to complain at length about something that was never made for my enjoyment in the first place, so I’ll avoid being too harsh here on the film’s flat CG slickness or its garbage comedy routines starring Eddie Murphy as a pipsqueak dragon. Instead of fully restraining myself from the conversation, however, I would like to touch on the one aspect of Mulan that makes it an interesting outlier in the realm of Disney-animated romance/fantasy: its exploration of gender identity.

You’d expect that a children’s movie from one of the world’s largest media conglomerates with a crossdressing protagonist would get a lot of praise for its bravery in exploring gender identity & expression on such a large, international stage and, indeed, a quick Google search of “Mulan trans” heeds a wealth of Tumblr posts doing just that. What was interesting to me as a first-time viewer, however, was that the movie itself was not fully committed to this ideal of trans representation. The titular Mulan is not presented to the audience as a trans man. Donning male garb & persona to serve in her aging father’s place in the Chinese Emperor’s army, Mulan joins a long history of women who crossdress (especially during war time) to gain agency & autonomy. She wears men’s clothes to escape hateful remarks like “Teach your daughter to hold her tongue in a man’s presence,” not because she necessarily identifies as a man. The film treats crossdressing in the classical comedic sense of a Shakespearean farce. It’s  a source of amusement & never reaches past a depiction of transvestism to genuinely explore/represent transgender issues.

That is, not officially. Although Mulan doesn’t actually identify as male, there is an undeniable trans subtext to the film. Her peers & ancestors call her a “crossdresser”& a “lunatic” in outrage, which surely resonates with at least one viewer or two out there who’ve suffered similar bullying when expressing their gender identity in public. There’s also a lot of attention paid to Mulan’s efforts to “pass”. She’s depicted wearing a binder over her breasts. She’s coached into using a deeper register voice, walking with gait, acting like a violent oaf, etc. Even though Mulan herself is not a trans man, a lot of her conflict seems true to certain facets of the trans experience. You could even argue that Mulan’s distress with having to live & appear as a man despite her true gender identity is a reflection of the way forcing someone to live a lie based on societal norms is emotionally abusive. However, this gender identity subtext is never as explicit in the movie as it is during an early scene where Mulan sings the song “Reflection”.

“Reflection” is such a strong, emotionally fragile ballad that cuts through nearly all of the Disney bullshit to reveal something truly heartfelt and vulnerable. For much of the film, Mulan is treated like a crossdresser and a source of shame, but “Reflection” almost changes the meaning of those exchanges entirely. The song makes it feel as if Mulan is a trans man, just one without the proper words or context to express that identity. Within the plot of the film, it’s meant to play as a mere expression of frustration with performing certain gender & societal roles that would please her family. The song appears even before the first time she dons male garb, after all. The subtext goes much, much deeper than that, though. It’s hard to even explain how striking & powerful the song plays when considered as trans subtext. It’s something you have to see & hear to believe:

Look at me
You may think you see
Who I really am
But you’ll never know me
Every day
It’s as if I play a part
Now I see
If I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart

Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

I am now
In a world where I
Have to hide my heart
And what I believe in
But somehow
I will show the world
What’s inside my heart
And be loved for who I am

Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection
Someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

There’s a heart that must be
Free to fly
That burns with a need to know
The reason why

Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?

Holy shit.

I don’t think  Mulan‘s a particularly good or handsome or even entertaining movie. The one time I remember being struck by what it accomplishes on a technical level is during a brief synth-scored suiting up sequence where its titular protagonist wears armor for the first time. The rest of the film was mostly me rolling my eyes at the sassy dragon or the drag jokes or whatever other CGI-aided abomination was boring me to tears from minute to minute. Still, I don’t think it’s fair to hound Disney for not fully committing to the trans narrative of its unorthodox protagonist. Any kind of representation on the queer spectrum would’ve been a lot to ask for a children’s film released 20 years ago by a conservative media giant. All I’m really saying here is that the massive power of “Reflection” turns all of that on its head. The song subtly, devastatingly warps Mulan’s central story & emotional arc, calling into question the exact meaning of everything that follows. Disney may have openly, deliberately addressed the fundamental nature of societal gender roles throughout the film, but none of that feels as strong or as subversively progressive as the trans subtext of “Reflection.” It’s a really powerful, truly vulnerable moment in a mostly lifeless film that could’ve used more like it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Adventures of Pluto Nash (2002)

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I’ve been curious about The Adventures of Pluto Nash for over a decade now. It’s widely accepted that Eddie Murphy has been putting in subpar work since at least the late 90s & Pluto Nash seemed to be one of those early signs that his best days were well behind him. With a $100 million budget and a mere $7 million dollar return, the movie was one of the top ten biggest box office flops of all time. While I didn’t expect it to be a particularly great movie, I though it did have potential as a trashy gem (à la Leonard Part 6 or Howard the Duck) because of its sci-fi premise. I suspected that Pluto Nash had potential as a fun bad movie because it was a Bad Movie in Space, which gave it a distinct advantage over the appeal of the Klumps & Norbits of Muprhy’s career. Unfortunately, it instead committed the number one sin in the Bad Movie Bible: it was boring.

When I pictured a Shitty Eddie-Murphy-in-Space Movie with a $100 Million Budget, I naively expected all kinds of goofy adventures featuring Murphy exploring improbable planets & cracking wise at the expense of goofy-looking aliens. Instead, Pluto Nash bottled all of its action on the Earth’s moon and supplanted madcap adventure with run-of-the-mill gunfights & a staggering surplus of jokes about horny robots. Murphy’s Nash is a retired smuggler struggling to run a clean nightclub business where oddly costumed weirdos can line dance to Outkast songs in a futuristic version of doing the robot. His wholesome nightclub is threatened by mafia types who want to turn the moon into a tacky outer space Atlantic City and he risks his life to stop them. The movie could’ve been set on Earth in the present and not lost much in the translation.

In the rare moments when the movie is in full gear the screen is littered with cheap-looking gunfights & car chases crippled with mediocrity. When it slows down Nash literally goes into hiding and essentially watches the Moon’s version of Netflix, which has to be one of the most boring approaches to a space adventure ever conceived. Imagine if The Fifth Element were adapted as a hackneyed UPN sitcom that frivolously wasted its entire budget on huge explosions & cameos that no one asked for and you’d have a pretty good idea of Pluto Nash’s style. Even the movie’s sole set outside on the Moon’s surface is embarrassingly cheap looking, faker than even 1969’s “real” Moon landing.

It’s hard to imagine where the film’s budget went outside the cast (and the gratuitous explosions). The list of supporting players is beyond impressive: B-Movie legend Pam Grier plays Nash’s gun-toting mother; the beautiful Rosario Dawson is his unlikely love interest; Peter Boyle is his partner in crime; Jay Mohr is a pop star that narrowly avoids drinking battery acid; John Cleese is some kind of AI butler. That’s not even including the appearances of Alec Baldwin, James Rebhorn, Joe Pantoliano, Illeana Douglas and Randy Quaid (as the aforementioned horny robot). Unfortunately, this ungodly stockpile of talent is put to waste and everyone seems to be in full paycheck mode. Even Murphy himself is dead weight here, keeping the antics to a minimum & surrounding himself with a script seemingly designed to massage his ego by constantly reminding everyone how awesome he is. The only actor that has any fun with the film is the always-dependable Luis Guzmán, but Guzmán is about as consistent as they come, so it’s a fairly hollow victory.

The Adventures of Pluto Nash is an action comedy that fails both in its action and its comedy. Jokes about Hilary Clinton’s face on future money (har har) and robots desperately trying to get laid (hee hee) aren’t funny the first time around and are downright painful in their repetition. The film even unironically uses a record scratch sound effect to punctuate its action gags, lest the audience forget to laugh. It’s that dire. As I’ve pointed out before in reviews of Exit to Eden & 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it’s possible for failed comedies or action movies to still be interesting as cultural time capsules or complete train wrecks. There’s a miniscule amount of early 2000’s charm in Pluto Nash’s shoddy rap versions of corny songs like “Blue Moon” & “Dancing in the Moonlight”, its semi-futuristic nightclub attire, and its use of Space Jam-inspired font, but it’s not enough to save the film from its own self-crushing blandness. In this case the schlock is both unfunny and boring, which is a brutal combination for any audience. I should’ve left Pluto Nash where it belongs: forgotten in the past, in hiding on the Moon, watching Moonflix (or whatever) in its pajamas, and trading tired quips with oversexed robots.

-Brandon Ledet