[Screen It]

(2003) (Eddie Murphy, Terence Stamp) (PG)

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Comedy: A family ends up trapped inside a haunted mansion by forces that want to break a curse on those who still reside there.
Jim Evers (EDDIE MURPHY) is a successful realtor who runs his own company with his wife Sara (MARSHA THOMASON). His drive to provide for the family, however, has put a strain on their relationship since he's often too busy with work to spend time with their kids, 13-year-old Megan (AREE DAVIS) and her 10-year-old brother, Michael (MARC JOHN JEFFERIES).

Accordingly, he agrees to spend an entire, work-free weekend with them. Yet, when Sara gets a call requesting she come alone to meet a potential client in an upscale neighborhood, Jim insists that they stop by on the way to their getaway.

His family reluctantly goes along and soon finds themselves in a rundown but immense mansion. There, they meet the head butler, Ramsley (TERENCE STAMP), other staff including Ezra (WALLACE SHAWN) and Emma (DINA WATERS), as well as the owner of the estate, Master Gracey (NATHANIEL PARKER).

When a sudden storm floods the roads, the Evers find themselves stuck there overnight. While Gracey tells Sara the story of his grandfather and his unfulfilled and tragic life with the young Elizabeth, Jim and the kids separately end up looking about the mansion.

With the help of the bodiless, crystal ball fortune teller Madame Leota (JENNIFER TILLY), they soon discover that something bad happened at the mansion and that others are trying to remedy that via the Evers. From that point on, and as various ghosts start coming out of the woodwork, Jim and his kids do what they can to lift a longtime curse and help both Sara and the spirits of those trapped in the haunted mansion.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
In a way, movies are very much like roller coasters and other amusement park rides. A great deal of time, planning and money goes into creating and marketing them, and the owners hope that they'll generate lots of repeat customers and thus revenue.

Not surprisingly, a synergy of sorts has developed between the two, usually with the movies spawning related rides and such. Disney has been bucking that tradition, however, first with the release of "The Country Bears" (based on the Country Bear Jamboree) and then "Pirates of the Caribbean."

The first flopped, but the second was a smash success, thus obviously inflating the hopes for their third such outing, "The Haunted Mansion." Based on the attraction at their theme parks, the offering had me worried since amusement park attractions usually aren't the best source material for movies.

Of course, Johnny Depp and company proved me wrong once. I must also admit that I have a soft spot for the ride, a cool bit of "imagineering" (as Disney calls it), especially back when it debuted and there was nothing like it.

Alas, this movie deserves a "ride closed" sign at its entrance. Much like the first two films - and others based on short or scant source material --- screenwriter David Berenbaum ("Elf") had to pad and expand upon the original "story" to make the offering a full-length feature.

Unfortunately, little imagination or creativity was put into the work. As a result, we have a standard haunted house flick - with the usual trappings, albeit PG style - that's about as mechanical and artificial as they come.

For unsuspecting parents of younger kids - who might be drawn by the often family friendly marquee name above the title - it will likely prove to be the stuff of nightmares. While the lively corpses and haunted house setting and ghosts, etc. won't likely raise a lone goose bump on adults, young kids and thus their parents might find it a bit intense.

The biggest fault, though, is that it's not remotely funny. That wouldn't be a bit deal if it fell straight into the horror or suspense category. Yet, it's obviously designed as a comedy, as what else could explain the presence of Eddie Murphy ("Daddy Day Care," "I Spy") in the lead role.

More annoying than hilarious, funny or even just amusing, Murphy's character is nothing short of a disappointment. Accordingly, the comedian - who can be so good with the right material and filmmaker directing him - is wasted.

Other than benefiting from a decent set design and related production values, director Rob Minkoff ("Stuart Little 2," "The Lion King") does nothing remarkable with the material. Some bits are incorporated from the actual attraction, but I think the film would have been better had it gone in a different direction.

For instance, it could have been set in the real ride. That would have allowed for some fun inside jokes - such as real ghosts playing the parts of the fake ones and complaining about kids being so tainted nowadays that they're harder to scare or about their boss' transparent and/or ghastly benefits packages, etc. - as well as plenty of "free" promotion for the ride and Disney properties.

Most anything would have been better than the current plot that does little favor for the performers appearing within it. Nathaniel Parker ("Beverly Hills Ninja," TV's Inspector Lynley Mysteries" shows) plays the master of the house whose secret is too easy to spot, while Terence Stamp ("My Boss' Daughter," "The Limey") and Wallace Shawn ("Duplex," "The Princess Bride") are wasted in their roles as the hired help.

Dina Waters ("Freaky Friday," "Isn't She Great") and Jennifer Tilly ("Monsters, Inc." "The Crew") round out the staff on the supernatural side, but don't fare any better. On the other side, Marsha Thomason ("Black Knight," TV's "Las Vegas"), Marc John Jefferies ("Brown Sugar," "Stuart Little 2") and Aree Davis (making her debut) play the rest of the protagonist's family. While credible for a film like this, they're otherwise unremarkable.

Unable to pack as much entertainment value into its nearly 100 minute runtime as the real ride does in just fractions of that, this purported comedy is flat, mechanical and lifeless. Accordingly, "The Haunted Mansion" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed November 22, 2003 / Posted November 26, 2003

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