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

Episode #36 of The Swampflix Podcast: Disney Ride Movies & Ghoulies II (1988)

Welcome to Episode #36 of The Swampflix Podcast! For our thirty-sixth episode, we enjoy what’s left of the summer with a trip to cinematic amusement parks. Brandon makes Britnee watch the carnival ride-set Gremlins knockoff Ghoulies II (1988) for the first time. Also, Brandon & Britnee discuss Disney movies that were adapted from their corresponding theme park rides (as opposed to the other way around). Enjoy!

-Brandon Ledet & Britnee Lombas

Searching for Divine Inspiration at Walt Disney World

Mere hours after debuting our Divine-inspired, Swampflix-sponsored Mardi Gras krewe this past Fat Tuesday, CC & I found ourselves riding in the back seat of an SUV, exhausted, and headed toward Disney World. An immersive, three day adventure to the Happiest Place on Earth is always going to be a disorienting vacation no matter what mental state you’re in. Yet, there was something especially absurd about diving head first into such a wholesome fantasy space after running rampant through the French Quarter all morning, dressed as famous drag queen and frequent John Waters collaborator Divine in the alcohol-enhanced sunshine. 

At first, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to accomplish while at Disney World besides checking off a few boxes as a film buff. That part was easy. A visit to a Walt Disney memorabilia museum titled One Man’s Dream, a similar Star Wars exhibit, a charmingly outdated 3-D Muppets screening, and a regularly-running “short film festival” of interactive Disney & Pixar selections all satisfied my apparent addiction to sitting in the dark, watching moving images. What was a much more difficult itch to scratch was maintaining our focus on our previously most recent task of keeping Divine’s legacy alive. You’d think that finding anything related to Divine or John Waters at large would be an impossible feat in such an aggressively clean environment, but Divine’s presence can be found in all things. And in Disney World, it can be found in Ursula.

The sea witch Ursula, of course, is the main villain in Disney’s modern animated classic The Little Mermaid. Although the construction of her persona can be attributed to many different influences, including both Elaine Stritch & Joan Collins, Ursula’s physical form was directly modeled after Divine (the top, non-octopus half was, anyway). The Little Mermaid‘s animators scrapped an initial idea to adorn Ursula with a hairstyle similar to the one Divine rocks in Pink Flamingos for being “too over the top,” but they did notably maintain her signature eye makeup & unmistakable body type for Ursula’s final form. The characters’ resemblance isn’t exactly uncanny, but it is blatant.

Ursula’s gigantic presence in The Little Mermaid, both physical & narrative, is a difficult effect to replicate in a kids’ amusement park, not least of all because the park would likely want to avoid scaring the shit out of children. It makes sense, then, that human actors would only be asked to portray Ariel from the film for the park’s rigidly scheduled photo ops & daily Festival of Fantasy parade. That doesn’t mean Ursula (and, by extension, Divine) has been locked out of the park entirely, though. She’s lurking around with her slithering eel accomplices (mostly in the form of large animatronic puppets) if you know where to look for her. Hopefully our search for Divine inspiration within Disney World parks will help expedite others’ in the future, in case anyone finds themselves visiting Orlando while as thirsty for Divine content as we were.

We started with the most obvious place you’d think to find Ursula lurking in the Walt Disney World parks: Magic Kingdom. There is exactly one The Little Mermaid-themed ride in Disney World’s oldest & most iconic park: Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid. Outside the ride you can wait in line to meet & take pictures with a professional Ariel cosplayer in her “grotto.” In line for the actual ride, Scuttle, the hoarder seagull, tries his best to simplify & recount the film’s plot in a digestible morsel to temper your boredom & distract you from heat exhaustion. Once inside, you’re strapped into a slow-moving clamshell vehicle that glides peacefully by two animatronic Ariels. One sings, “Part of Your World” and the other dances along to the ride’s centerpiece: a colorful, puppet-filled rendition of “Under the Sea” that’s doused with the widest variety of day-glo paint you’re ever likely to see in a single room.

None of that underwater glitz & glamor is our concern here, though. We’re looking for Divine. Ursula arrives in the ride just after the second Ariel in the “Under the Sea” number, isolated all by herself in a dark cove. She is a beautiful, oversized mechanical puppet I can only picture in my memory as cackling maniacally, even though in reality she sings a song. The purple sea witch is a breath of fresh, menacing air in a literal sea of smiling faces. Soak it in, because it will not last for long. After a glorious moment of hearing Ursula belt out the chorus of her show-stopping number “Poor Unfortunate Souls” in front of her giant crystal ball, she fades from the rest of the ride (or at least her inhuman, Divine-inspired form does), never to be heard from again. It was an all-too-brief Ursula encounter, but it fortunately wouldn’t be our last.

The next stop for Ursula content was a little less obvious and just happened to be something we stumbled into. As a park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) is a little less cartoon-heavy than Magic Kingdom. This will be especially true once its current in-progress overhaul bulks up its Star Wars & MCU-themed attractions (for obviou$ rea$on$). The park is intensely focused on live theater, though, with attractions like The Tower of Terror & whatever the monstrously obnoxious Aerosmith rollercoaster is called existing as total outliers in an environment typically dedicated to more traditionally dramatic modes of entertainment. We were already having enough fun in the park being traumatized by the uncanny valley nightmare of the Robert Osbourne-hosted The Great Movie Ride (R.I.P.) and the distinctly Norman Bates theatricality of our server at the 50’s Prime Time Café, but there’s no good time that can’t be improved by a little Divine. Thankfully, the Divine lurking in Hollywood Studios was a large one. Freakishly large, even.

Located in the park’s Animated Courtyard area, the routinely performed indoor show Voyage of the Little Mermaid is very similar in content to the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride at Magic Kingdom (as if you couldn’t tell by their titles). Fish sing “Under the Sea;” Ariel sings “Part of Your World;” Ursula sings “Poor Unfortunate Souls” and then promptly disappears before the happily ever afters. It’s the same tidy retelling of the animated film with one major exception: the puppets. Whereas the Journey of the Little Mermaid ride is all 100% animatronic puppetry, the Voyage of the Little Mermaid is more of a mixed media affair. The fish puppets are all hand-operated by performers working in the stage’s shadows, Ariel & her boy toy Eric are portrayed by live human actors (as is the more degrading role of Eric’s dog), and the whole show is substantially beefed up by projections from the original animated film, laser light displays, and a waterfall curtain that smells authentically like seawater (whether or not the effect is intentional). It’s a totally pleasant, refreshingly cool way to spend 17 minutes of your life in the park, but what’s most impressive is the way the mini-play brings Ursula to life.

While Ariel & her fishy friends are given a new form of representation in Voyage of the Little Mermaid to distinguish them from Journey of the Little Mermaid, Ursula remains animatronic puppet. She’s so much more impressive in the show than she is in the ride, though, as her size is blown up to 12 feet high & 10 feet wide. I already fell in love with the mechanical puppet from the Little Mermaid ride (which is the more strikingly beautiful one in terms of basic visual craft), but it’s just absolutely dwarfed by the intimidatingly gigantic puppet from the show. It’s the kind of scale & magnificence that almost makes you want to fall to your knees in worship. In other words, it’s absolutely Divine.

That giant puppet would be the last Divine presence we located at Disney World, but, honestly, her magnificent size would’ve been difficult to top by any other display. Maybe there was an Ursula lurking somewhere in one of the three parks we didn’t have a chance to visit (Animal Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach), but that seems highly unlikely. The only other places to search for our Divine inspiration, then, would be the park’s other other main attraction besides rides & shows: merchandise.

Disney villains from decades-old cartoons aren’t going to move nearly as much merch as the likes of an Elsa or an Olaf or an, um, Other Thing from Frozen. That doesn’t mean there’s no Ursula merch to be found in the parks, though. You just sometimes have to accept her as a package deal with other characters. For instance, outside the Finding Nemo ride at Epcot (which dumps you into a surprisingly decent aquarium), there’s an underwater-themed gift shop that sells a collection of Little Mermaid “squeeze toy” figurines. Ursula’s included, but you have to buy the whole collection to get her. Similarly, I found (and, of course, purchased) a purple baseball cap that features several of Disney’s more infamous female villains like Maleficent, the Evil Queen from Snow White, and, duh, Ursula. According to a brief search of the term “The Little Mermaid” on Disney World’s creepily helpful Disney Go app, there were some really nice Ursula “couture de force” figurines, art prints, and blouses for sale, but we never laid eyes on them (and they would’ve been far outside our price range anyway).

If you really want to take home Ursula’s visage isolated on some affordable merchandise, your only viable option is to find her on an enamel pin. We happened to purchase some Ursula pins at a kiosk located outside Space Mountain, but Disney has a surprisingly strong, park-wide enamel pin culture. You could probably find the damn things in any shop you poke your head into, as a lot of the stores seem to carry overlapping merch. (The same also goes with the squeeze toy figurines we found outside the Finding Nemo ride.) There’s also a lot of annual turnover on the merch that’s sold within the parks, so not only is it possible that we missed out on some sweet Ursula gear when we happened to be there, but you can also likely find excessed deadstock of old Ursula merch at the various Disney outlet malls sprinkled throughout Orlando.

We really have no clue where Krewe Divine’s headed in the future in terms of scale or membership. It’s only a matter of time until one of us dresses as Ursula on Fat Tuesday, though, so it really was a treat to cap off our first year as a microscopic Mardi Gras krewe by treating Walt Disney World like an unofficial Divine scavenger hunt. As the release of The Little Mermaid is already nearly three decades behind us, it’s likely that Ursula’s Divine presence within the amusement park is on borrowed time. As is, she’s seemingly only represented in the form of two (beautiful) animatronic puppets and a few enamel pins already. Even that’s enough representation worth celebrating, though. I was overjoyed to see her there in any form. In a way it’s a kind of a miracle that there was ever any John Waters-adjacent content to be found at Disney World at all. It’s even more of a miracle that it happened to be Divine.

-Brandon Ledet