RETROSPECTIVE: The Haunted Mansion (2003)

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There was an odd point toward the end of Disney’s renaissance, the era when Walt Disney Animation Studios returned to making more musical animated films that were mostly based on well-known stories thus allowing Disney’s animated films to become powerhouse successes at the domestic and foreign box office, where then CEO Micheal Eisner made extremely odd creative choices. Eisner ushered in the creation of safe projects like Disney animations long string of straight to DVD movies and live-action remake like The Parent Trap. These were relatively cheap products to make that returned a decent enough profit.

Within that time, Eisner took an uncharacteristic risk on a genre film called, Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, loosely based off the Disneyland attraction. The movie was a passion project for producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Gore Verbinski. Following that movie’s massive success, Eisner with Walt Disney Studios greenlit similar movie concepts also based off ride attractions including The Country Bears and debatably one of the worst movies in Walt Disney Studios history, The Haunted Mansion.

For some clarity, I am a Disney fan. I grew up taking summer vacations to Orlando with my family and then did the Disney College Program in Orlando. I even worked for the Mouse from 2012-2016 and throughout that time learned my fair share of Disney trivia and knowledge. Of all the parks I have traveled too, Orlando, Anaheim, and Paris, The Haunted Mansion has consistently been my favorite attraction.

Walt Disney World’s Haunted Mansion featured on the left vs Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion featured on the right

The story of the Haunted Mansion attraction is the same for most of the theme parks with some minor exceptions in Disneyland Paris and Disneyland Hong Kong. Guests enter a spooky mansion that was previously owned by Master Gracey. The occupants of the manors, despite being dead haven’t left.

Traveling through the mansion they’re offered a tour by the Ghost Host and meet a few stand out characters including Madame Leota, Constance The Bride, and The Hitchhiking Ghosts. Within a loose story of the Haunted Mansion, at some point during in “their mortal states,” Master Gracey, owner of the mansion, and Constance were engaged before he called off the wedding.

Previously guests could find her engagement ring hidden among the graveyard within the line queue. Following the failed engagement, Constance went on to marry, again, and again, and again. She murders each of her husbands and for each one gains a set of pearls. Her spirit now resides in the attic where she retells her killings to the guests passing through the manor. Overall, the attraction itself has silly moments but overall excites guests in its eeriness and special effects over laughs. Yet the movie adaptation of the ride is primarily considered a comedy.

The movie The Haunted Mansion debuted in theatres in 2003 and was directed by Rob Minkoff and written by David Berenbaum. The story takes place in Lousiana with a mansion that combines both Disneyland’s plantation style home with Walt Disney World’s Victorian manor. The Haunted Mansion follows a pair of married realtors Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy) and Sara Ever (Marsha Thomason), with their children as they stop by Gracey Manor due to call received by Sara of the owner wanting to sell the house.

Despite previously focusing on work and missing his children’s events, Jim convinces Sara to let them stop by on the way to their weekend getaway with the kids. The owner of the house, Master Gracey has a bizarre obsession with Sara. The family realizes they will be forced to stay the night due to an unforeseen storm. Things get odd from there. The family soon learns that Gracey is obsessed with Sara because she looks like Mr. Gracey’s old girlfriend, Elizabeth, who died young. Gracey thinks it was a suicide but with the help of Jim and a few select ghosts, they discover something more sinister.

The movie gives fans of the attraction a lot of fan service including starting the title card with the famous, “Welcome Foolish Mortals” and offering nods to the attraction’s more famous moments like the hanging man in the opening pre-show, key quotes from the attraction, the singing busts and the music of “Grim, Grinning, Ghosts” used throughout the ride attraction.

It also introduces us to known favorite in the ride like Madame Leota and Ezra  (Wallace Shawn), one of the hitchhiking ghosts in the attraction, but the characters lose the charismatic appeal they had in the ride next to Murphy’s over the top performance and  Shawn playing the exact same character he is known for in The Princess Bride. The CGI in the movie is not bad but the graveyard scene tries desperately to copy the effects used within the attraction. While I appreciate the thought, ride effects and Hollywood CGI do not intermingle well.

Outside of that, this feels like a misunderstanding of the attraction’s story and tone. The film grossed $182.3 million worldwide on a $90 million budget so it did make it’s money back but not in the way Pirates of the Carribean: The Black Pearl did. Overall, the movie received negative reviews from critics and it’s easy to see why. The movie is not scary and the jokes aren’t funny. The movie rating wise is a hard “meh.”

It suffers from a tonal dissonance. Murphy’s jokes don’t land next to a nefarious butler and a ghost Master who killed himself due to losing the love of his life. Sara’s character is a plot device and she lacks real depth. Murphy’s character is, well,  typical Murphy. Over the top jokes that are similar to his characters in other movies from this time like Mulan, Daddy Day Care, and Shrek. 

Adapting a theme park ride is far from easy but the Haunted Mansion is probably one of the few attractions at Disney theme parks that has such an immersive story, more so than Pirates of the Caribbean. During his tenure as CEO of the Walt Disney Company from September 1984 to September 2005, Micheal Eisner said, “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” While it is common in the pursuit of money to make art it is also common to make trash in hopes of getting a quick paycheck. Eisner greenlit this movie, oked this script, and casting in hopes it found similar success that Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl did.

However, the main difference between that movie and this one is passion. There have been rumors for years that famed horror director and Haunted Mansion fan Guillermo Del Toro is set to remake the film but so far that plan has never come to fruition. If you are looking for better adaptations of the Haunted Mansion attraction I highly recommend the 2016 comic from Marvel Comics created for their “Disney Kingdoms” imprint.