There’s a New ‘Haunted Mansion.’ It Can’t Be as Bad as the One Eddie Murphy Made 20 Years Ago
Hope springs eternal, or maybe it’s just cynicism. But this Friday, Disney releases Haunted Mansion, a horror-comedy that stars LaKeith Stanfield, Tiffany Haddish, Owen Wilson, Danny DeVito and Rosario Dawson. If you’ve been to Disneyland or the other Disney theme parks, you’ve probably been to that particular attraction — you walk through different rooms and see vaguely spooky things. On a hot day, the Haunted Mansion is great because it’s air-conditioned, but it’s not really exciting like Space Mountain. Nonetheless, Disney is determined to make Haunted Mansion a thing, perhaps even its next franchise. Nobody knows synergy like the Mouse House.
This is not the first time there’s been a big-screen version of Haunted Mansion. In fact, it’s been 20 years since the last attempt, The Haunted Mansion, which didn’t go too well. You may not even remember that movie. It was during that period when Eddie Murphy was doing a lot of family films that were just awful. The reviews of Haunted Mansion have been pretty mixed, but critics seem to be in agreement: At least it’s not as bad as The Haunted Mansion was.
In the late 1990s, Disney began developing feature films based on its theme-park attractions. The logic was obvious: People love going to Disneyland and Disney World, so why not make some movies based on the rides they know so well? After all, some of Disney’s most beloved characters end up being transplanted to the parks — it makes sense to bring the attractions to the multiplex. Funny enough, the first big-screen adaptation, 2000’s Mission to Mars, was based on a ride that had been discontinued years ago — which is among the many reasons the film tanked. (Director Brian De Palma hated the experience so much he basically quit Hollywood and started making movies abroad. “(B)ecause the Disney administration changed while I was making the movie, I was able to get most of what I wanted done,” he said in 2016. “But you’re starting to feel the control of the studio, because there’s all this money involved. That’s when I said, ‘I don’t want to make movies like this anymore. They shouldn’t be this expensive.’”)
Undeterred, Disney kept at it, releasing in 2002 the live-action comedy The Country Bears. That, too, bombed, probably not helped by the fact that the original attraction, the Country Bear Jamboree, was no longer running. Another problem was that the animatronics kept malfunctioning, making first-time director Peter Hastings’ job a nightmare. “Every bear has a rig; a rack with all the equipment,” he said last year. “When we were (filming) with Elton John” — who had a cameo in The Country Bears — “they accidentally plugged one puppeteer’s rig into the wrong bear. … So when they plugged it into (the) wrong bear, his jaw just exposed all his teeth and his face got all crooked. And Elton John said to me, ‘That looks like me after I did too much coke back in the day.’”
The studio finally had a hit, in a big way, with its next outing. Released in July of 2003, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl was a blockbuster, making Johnny Depp a superstar. The Curse of the Black Pearl capitalized on the popular, somewhat problematic ride, birthing a franchise that has now grossed $4.5 billion worldwide. Not bad considering, according to Depp, the Disney higher-ups weren’t keen on his portrayal of the flamboyant Jack Sparrow. “They just couldn’t stand him,” the actor later said. “I think it was Michael Eisner, the head of Disney at the time, who was quoted as saying, ‘He’s ruining the movie.’”
Nonetheless, just a few months after The Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney unveiled its next theme-park adaptation, which also featured a prominent star in an action-comedy setting. Eddie Murphy in a haunted-house movie meant for the whole family: That sounded like a recipe for success.
Unfortunately, this was a period in which Murphy’s hip factor was fast decreasing. He could still occasionally bring the goods — 1999’s Bowfinger was a gem, and 2001’s Shrek had been a sensation — but those bright spots were outnumbered by the likes of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Dr. Dolittle 2, Showtime, The Adventures of Pluto Nash and I Spy, all of which were bombs and/or critical disappointments. The edgy comic genius of the 1980s was mostly long gone, replaced by a disappointingly bland, family-friendly nonentity. Earlier the same summer as Pirates of the Caribbean, Murphy put out Daddy Day Care, which was a modest hit but depressingly more of the same from him. The man who once electrified on stage now seemed like a sellout — even worse, he was a sellout in films that weren’t remotely interesting. It was such a waste of his talent.
Anybody hoping The Haunted Mansion was going to be different was sorely disappointed. There was reason to be optimistic. The film was directed by Rob Minkoff, who had co-directed the animated Lion King, moving to live-action for the adorable Stuart Little films. And the makeup work was done by seven-time-Oscar-winner (and frequent Murphy collaborator) Rick Baker. But the script, which was inspired by story beats from the theme-park attraction, couldn’t have been more generic. Murphy played Jim, a real estate agent who’s great at his job but, predictably, doesn’t pay enough attention to his wife and kids. When he finds out there’s a mansion on the market, he swings into action to get it sold — only to find out it’s haunted by wacky ghosts.
The commercial appeal of the theme-park-attraction movie is obvious: Event films are often described as rollercoaster rides, so it ought to be easy to turn an existing attraction into a flick. But where Pirates of the Caribbean at least developed an entertaining-enough storyline around a familiar ride, The Haunted Mansion invented a convoluted mystery scenario involving one of the ghost’s fascination with Jim’s wife (and business partner) Sara (Marsha Thomason), who he believes is his reincarnated dead lover. The movie’s production design looked great, aping the style of the original theme-park attraction, but otherwise it was just witless action scenes and Murphy’s mugging. Despite Terence Stamp and Wallace Shawn being somewhat amusing playing phantoms, The Haunted Mansion was uninspired multiplex fare trying to lure in youngsters and their tired parents. Even weirder, the film came out around Thanksgiving — wouldn’t it have made more sense to be released before Halloween?
Critics ripped The Haunted Mansion apart, with even the more positive reviews pretty lukewarm. (My favorite may be from Ty Burr, who wrote in The Boston Globe, “It is spectacularly average.”) The film grossed about $182 million worldwide, but with a budget of around $90 million — and remembering that half of a film’s haul goes to the theaters, not the studio — The Haunted Mansion wasn’t going to be another Pirates of the Caribbean. It was one of those event movies that ended up not being an event.
Was it the worst film of that period for Murphy? That’s hard to say. Pluto Nash is pretty awful. In subsequent years, he’d make Meet Dave and Imagine That. Stinkers abound, although the occasional Dreamgirls would briefly get your hopes up. But no matter where it lands on his list of worst films, The Haunted Mansion felt symptomatic of a general laziness on his part — not to mention Disney’s part. Long before IP-driven product became Hollywood’s M.O., The Haunted Mansion was shallow and crass, and the fact that it didn’t connect with audiences was somewhat encouraging. (Not that we could take too much comfort in that fact: Soon, we’d be stuck with one abysmal Pirates of the Caribbean sequel after another, each of them unfathomably lucrative.) Disney tried other theme-park films, but Tomorrowland and Jungle Cruise failed. And now, all these years later, we have another Haunted Mansion.
Speaking recently to Entertainment Weekly, Haunted Mansion director Justin Simien said he didn’t want to “dunk on the (original). It’s a movie of its time, and it’s also a movie that, frankly, a lot of people grew up with and love hardcore.” Still, Simien admitted he “looked at (The Haunted Mansion) a lot, mostly to see how easy it would be to go awry in certain spots,” declaring that he wanted to “create something totally different, but at the same time wouldn’t disrespect anyone who was a fan of that film or the good choices that film does make.” You know how most filmmakers of remakes or reboots will go out of their way to praise the original? It’s telling that Simien isn’t doing that. He knows we know it’s bad.
And Murphy does, too. Earlier this year, the comic noted that he wouldn’t be in the new film, saying, “I did a Haunted Mansion movie, and it wasn’t very good, so I don’t know if they want to bring the old baggage and have me stinking up the new one. My Haunted Mansion was not all that and a bag of chips.”
No doubt there are viewers who came of age watching and loving The Haunted Mansion — the same ones who will bring their kids to the new movie this weekend. But for most of us, Haunted Mansion is best forgotten — and even if the new one is better, well, it’s not that much better.
Disney seems determined to keep doing theme-park films. (A Space Mountain movie has been talked about for years..) But there was always something especially sad about The Haunted Mansion. Not quite scary, not very funny, it gave us an Eddie Murphy who seemed content to just do crap, chasing big paychecks while catering to the lowest common denominator. It was a sad time for him creatively. The greatest comic of his generation was, suddenly, a ghost of his former self.