Not nearly as good as Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl but still infinitely better than The Country Bears this third Disney theme park ride to come to life finally explains all those ghosts haunting that moss-covered wrought iron-gated mansion you've stood in a three-hour line to visit. Haunted Mansion starts off with the attraction's familiar ghoulish music and classic line "Welcome foolish mortals!" and quickly gets into how the now-decrepit house was once a thriving and stately antebellum palace that hosted 19th century New Orleans' wealthiest (aha the dancing ghosts in the Great Hall!). Its owner Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) was the consummate Southern gentleman but had fallen in love with Elizabeth a beautiful woman who unfortunately was considered beneath Gracey's stature. Disregarding the advice from his trusted confidante and butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) Gracey planned to marry his beloved Elizabeth anyway but tragedy intervened. Apparently Elizabeth could not face ruining the life of her one true love and rather than live without him she committed suicide--or so it seemed (ominous enough for you?). Utterly heartbroken Gracey hanged himself from the observatory tower thus cursing the house and trapping all who had dwelled there or in the sprawling graveyard behind the house (999 ghosts to be exact) forever. Cool.
Then suddenly Eddie Murphy appears showing off his trademark pearly whites and trying to sell said mansion to a married couple. Wait what's going on here? Oh right that's the other part of the movie. Jumping ahead to the present Murphy plays Jim Evers a workaholic real estate agent whose lovely wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) wants him to spend more quality time with his family. When she convinces Jim to take a weekend vacation with their two kids he agrees--but first they have to make one quick stop to check out an eerie old mansion as a possible house to sell. That's when it all goes to hell. Unbeknownst to the Evers Sara is the spitting image of Elizabeth--and Gracey's ghost is determined to keep her with him at the mansion. To be fair it's the script's fault not Murphy's that he has to run around like an idiot chased by any number of poltergeists yelling "Don't you let no dark spirits out!" and "There are dead people in the backyard!" while trying to save his wife and break the curse. But let's just say he's no Johnny Depp and can't quite carry the film past its innate silliness. At least the funnyman gets a little help from the kids played by an unfazed Aree Davis and arachnophobic Marc John Jefferies as well as the hilarious Jennifer Tilly who portrays the psychic Madame Leota (you know the floating head inside the crystal ball from the ride who spouts gloomy predictions in rhymes. Love her). Of the apparitions Stamp seems to enjoy playing his ghoulish Ramsley the most while friendly ghosts Wallace Shawn as a manservant and Dina Waters as a maid add some levity to the already madcap proceedings.
The promise of The Haunted Mansion comes from its source. Opening in 1969 the Haunted Mansion attraction was considered very innovative for its time as Disney Imagineers toyed with all manner of visual effects and animatronics. Even to this day it's a perennial favorite. Director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) wants to make sure fans experience the thrill of it again this time through the machinations of modern-day special effects and the art of filmmaking. The film's look and feel aptly captures the spirit of the Disney attraction. Evers walks down the very same hall as in the attraction past the pastoral pictures on the wall that change into sinister images as the eyes of unsmiling stone heads follow him. He and the kids take a ghostly coach ride through the graveyard where all the wacky spirits are doing their thing including those wayward spirits ready to hitch a ride with them. Even the singing busts are there now a barbershop quartet that riffs off whatever anyone says. It's just a shame screenwriter David Berenbaum's story couldn't have been a little less contrived. While the fascinating back story cleverly answers some of those questions enthusiasts may have had about the ride the present-day scenario starts to fall apart once Evers sets out to break the curse and things get really looney. Even when the family finds out about Master Gracey's sad tale the film doesn't really live up to the imagination the theme park attraction inspires; instead figuring the "insider"-isms will go over the young heads in the audience the film sticks with trite dialogue and over-the-top shenanigans to please the tykes.