THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"THE HAUNTED MANSION"

If you canít afford to go to Disney World, all you need to do these days is go to your local theater. The Disney studio has lately taken to turning its theme park rides into movies: The Country Bears, Pirates of the Caribbean and now The Haunted Mansion. Well, at least a movie ticket is less expensive than an admission pass.

Eddie Murphy stars as real estate agent Jim Evers, who runs his business with wife Sara (Marsha Thomason). Jim is a workaholic, and his busy schedule often keeps him away from his children, Michael and Megan (Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis). One day, Sara gets a call to represent the sale of Gracey Mansion, a potentially multi-million dollar property. She doesnít want to do it, as the family is scheduled to finally take a weekend trip together. But Jim insists the deal is too valuable to let get away. He promises a 20-minute detour to finalize business with the mansionís owner, then they can move on to their vacation.

The first person they meet at the mansion is a creepy butler named Ramsley (Terence Stamp). Not long after the Evers family arrives, Ramsley informs them that a sudden rain storm has closed off the road out. They are stuck there for the night. It turns out that all of this is no coincidence. The ghostly Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), having previously seen a picture of Sara, believes her to be the reincarnation of his former lover, who committed suicide right after he proposed marriage centuries ago. Graceyís plan is to take Sara for himself. Once he is happy, the spell cast over the house will be lifted and all the servants (also ghosts) can leave their state of purgatory and move on to Heaven.

Jim and the kids try to stop Gracey from carrying out his plan. Along the way, they get help from two servants Ė Ezer (Wallace Shawn) and Emma (Dina Waters) Ė as well as Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly), a disembodied head inside a crystal ball. They also wander around Gracey Mansion discovering secret rooms, ghouls that come out of coffins, and (most amusingly) singing sculptures. In the end, Jim discovers a secret that completely alters his perception of Master Gracey.

The Haunted Mansion has a much better story than I had expected. It would have been easy for screenwriter David Berenbaum to slap something together simply to capitalize off the name of the famous ride. He didnít do that, though. The story here is interesting, particularly in the way it plays itself out. It deals with some dark ideas, even while remaining appropriate for all but the youngest children. Director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) certainly has fun with the special effects, but he keeps the story at the center of things.

The other thing I like about The Haunted Mansion is that itís a nice movie for families to see together. I know that ďniceĒ is generally considered an insult these days, but I donít mean it as such. I think that families can go to this movie and have a really good time with it. Thereís nothing offensive here, yet itís not your typical watered down, warm-fuzzy PG-rated film either. Younger kids may find it scary in a fun sort of way, while older kids will get off on the action and cool effects. Adults will appreciate the thoughtful themes in the plot: the importance of making time for your family, the troubles inherent in clinging too tightly to the past, etc. Thereís a little something for everyone.

Like a theme park ride, this film is simply about providing a good time. All the great staples of haunted house movies are here: the floating apparitions, the hidden passageways, the pictures on the wall that seem to be watching. I love that stuff. There are laughs too. Eddie Murphy has, of course, mostly abandoned his raw comedic style in favor of more family-friendly pictures. Heís still funny, though. In many ways, he plays straight man to all the creatures and effects. Watching him, I was reminded of those old movies where Abbott and Costello met the Wolfman or Frankenstein. A good comedian knows how to temper the horror elements in just such a way that they become amusing. Murphy does that very well in this role.

Iím again going to use the word ďfunĒ in describing the entire production design. Gracey Mansion is a blast to look at. There seems to be something going on in every corner, and all the little secrets it holds reveal themselves in just the right ways. Itís a triumph for all the behind-the-scenes crew members who put it together. Same goes for the effects team, who create imaginative visuals that work within the context of the story. I particularly liked Madame Leota, whose head floats around in a fog of green haze.

At this time of year, many movies aimed at families are released. Some of them are shamelessly bad. The Cat in the Hat is this yearís prime example. The Haunted Mansion was made in the spirit of giving everyone in the family something to enjoy together. Itís successful at that level.

( out of four)


The Haunted Mansion is rated PG for frightening images, thematic elements and language. The running time is 1 hour and 29 minutes.

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