Why Disney’s ‘Haunted Mansion’ Movie with Eddie Murphy is Bad

Pumpkin Scarecrow in front of the Haunted Mansion, Disneyland
Photo by Ben Lei on Unsplash

When Disney decided to leverage its parks intellectual property to make movies, the Haunted Mansion attraction was near the top of the list. It made sense for the resorts to make this move; after all, movies had been providing the parks with attractions since it was founded. Why not return the favor? The Haunted Mansion was already filled with stories — at least 999 of them — one of those stories should work for the big screen.

Unfortunately, the first foray into this IP didn’t work. Much like its physical counterpart, the movie tried to walk the line between comedy and family fun horror, which resulted in it being neither. Instead, fans of the attraction were disappointed, and movie-goers avoided the film. (Budgeted at $90 million, the film made slightly over $75 million domestically and $180 million worldwide according to Box Office Mojo.) In spite of the film’s clever back story communicated through the opening sequence, which gets repeated at least once more in the film, the film didn’t become the success it could’ve been. Why? Beware, foolish mortal, spoilers ahead.

Eddie Murphy

After a slew of box office bombs (“Showtime” $38 million, “Pluto Nash” $4 million, “I-Spy” $33 million, and “Daddy Day Care,” which grossed $104 million according to IMDB), Eddie Murphy needed a vehicle to bring him back to the ranks of bankable stars. It wasn’t to be. However, while Murphy chews the scenery in this film, he is not the problem. He brings exactly what anyone would expect him to bring to a family friendly comedy role. If the director could’ve reined Murphy in just a bit or the script would’ve been adapted to Murphy’s comedy style, it wouldn’t have been a casting mismatch.

Instead, the comedian makes over-the-top facial expressions at inappropriate times and cracks jokes that are often rolled over by other noise in the film. Eddie Murphy is just as good as you’d expect him to be in a PG comedy; it’s not quite the level of “the Nutty Professor,” but there’s only one of him in “the Haunted Mansion.”

999 Happy Haunts

The Haunted Mansion attraction is home to 999 happy haunts. “The Haunted Mansion” movie is home to a ghost light, Madame Leota (played by Jennifer Tilly), two scared ghosts, one distinctly, tragically, unhappy ghost, and one malevolent spirit, who gets to be the butt of a stupid joke (“The butler did it?!?”) that ruins his gravitas and fear factor. Seriously, Terence Stamp of “Superman II” fame deserved better. He could’ve at least retorted, “I’m a valet.” There are some happy haunts in the graveyard and some suits of armor come to life, but all in all, the movie lacks the happy that the attraction is famous for.

No Payoff

In spite of the long, slow opening segments, “the Haunted Mansion” feels rushed. There are problems that characters should need to overcome, but when the time comes to do so, there isn’t any real doubt or conflict.

Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) is a workaholic. He misses his anniversary dinner in order to talk about potentially selling a home. When his wife meets him at the door, he offers up a teddy bear and an expensive watch as tokens of his apology. She forgives the bear but not him. After promising to take the family to the lake, they get a mysterious phone call inviting them to sell a mansion. Evers accepts the invitation, and there’s no confrontation between him and his wife about it. Later, when Evers figuratively throws the watch into his wife’s face, she removes it and walks out of the room. That’s the extant of the fireworks, which is much less than may have been warranted by the situation.

Early on, Jim Evers and his son must deal with a spider on the son’s bedroom window. After a long explanation about why it’s important to kill the spider, Evers rolls up a magazine and hands it to his son. The son doesn’t want to kill it. More discussion is cutoff when the sister arrives to kill the spider. At the haunted mansion, a point is made of showing a spider in a web with the son noticing it and grimacing. Later, when the son must confront his spider fear, he hesitates, runs to the door, and opens it. He has no reaction to the dozens of spiders on his jacket, and there was no real build up to make this the momentous occasion for him to defeat his fear.

When they get out of the car Evers rubs out a mark that may or may not have been made and talks about how it is a finely tuned machine. Later, he doesn’t hesitate to crash it into the mansion. On the other hand, the sister’s intelligence isn’t set up until she translates Latin over a crypt. “You said it was a dead language,” she tells her father. “And here we are in a graveyard.”

Pacing Problem

After a long time setting up the family’s arrival at the mansion and discovering it’s actually haunted, the film rushes through its last third. The Evers, minus the wife, literally race through the graveyard, where fans get glimpses of the sequences they adore from the Disney attraction. While this could’ve ben used to set up a future film, or series, it’s clear that this is fan service, that someone didn’t really want included in the movie. It does nothing to advance the plot. Even worse, when the Evers come to the singing busts, the busts slow the action down and provide zero useful information; sadly, they aren’t even funny, though they are in harmony. Problems are resolved with very little suspense, and movie runs into the climax.

Burying the Haunted Mansion

Even with its flaws, the film is a pleasant diversion with enough fan service to delight. It’s quite possible that leaving Jim Evers next to his car, crying about his wife, and shutting off the movie before the arrival of Madame Leota would make this a better film with a sad ending. Evers’ wife would become ghost 1,000, and the mansion would be filled. Unfortunately, the film continues to its detriment, and its credits bury it under the unrelated and unforgivable.

Damsel in Distress

Marsha Thompson plays Sara Evers, who up to this point has been called Jim Evers’ wife in this review because she takes no action on her own. She is the McGuffin (what everyone is trying to get). When she finally does do something, she decides to marry the ghost, so that she can save her children. Then she takes poison and has to be saved. Thompson is little more than arm candy for the two male leads; she is literally there for her looks.

Jim Evers arrives to stop the wedding, the fireplace opens up to hell, and a fiery dragon tongue whips around the room grabbing the butler by the ankle to drag him to the pit in a scene reminiscent of Gandalf’s fall with the Balrog. The wife and kids have little to no reaction to this apparition; they must be too jaded by now to care about it much. The butler grabs Jim Evers, who is saved by the repentant, now-enlightened, would-be groom.

Credit Miscues

The credits roll with “Iz You” performed by Nelly. This rap song has no connection to the film. Its style doesn’t match anything else seen or heard during the movie. Its lyrical content doesn’t mention ghosts, haunts, or anything haunted. It uses a riff from “the People’s Court” theme. This might be the worst choice made for the credits of any film. If the credits are supposed to help ease you back into reality, “Iz You” drives you recklessly from the theater. Nelly isn’t even a Disney contracted singer; they borrowed him. Maybe the idea was to run the audience over with a bus load of Nelly beats, so viewers could become happy haunts.

At the end of the credits, the Disney Company placed an advertisement: You’ve seen the movie now ride the ride. That one simple sentence explains why the film failed — a lack of attention to its own mythos. The parks do not have rides; they have attractions. These words are so important that they are ingrained in cast members’ minds as they go through training. Anyone familiar with the Disney Company knows this terminology and uses it when referencing Disney in particular.

Hurry Back!

The most egregious error the film makes is regarding its happy haunts. At the end of the film, all the spirits rise into heaven (or possibly, Heaven). This single scene completely ignores one of the best parts of the attraction. As you leave the Haunted Mansion, Little Leota invites you to hurry back, and the barbershop quartet sings “Mortals pay a token fee… We like your company.” It also preemptively undercuts the after credits scene where Jennifer Tilly’s Madame Leota invites the audience to hurry back. With all the spirits gone, there’s nothing to hurry back to. There is also no room for a sequel. It’s a shame that so many ghosts had their stories swallowed up in this movie. Hopefully, Disney’s next foray into the Haunted Mansion on film will be a better story and more cognizant of the attraction’s storytelling possibilities.

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Earned a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation from Malta U., author of “Disneyland Is Creativity” and other books, other works available at www.penguinate.com.

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Shad Engkilterra

Earned a Master’s in Creativity and Innovation from Malta U., author of “Disneyland Is Creativity” and other books, other works available at www.penguinate.com.