'The Haunted Mansion' A Familiar Fun House

By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 28, 2003

HERE'S A SENTENCE you probably never thought you'd read: Eddie Murphy is less offensive than Dr. Seuss.

It's true, at least when it comes to the two family films stuffing cineplexes this weekend. While Mike Myers sheds unfunny fur all over Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat" (a comedy that should have been called "The Crass in the Hat"), fellow "Saturday Night Live" alum Murphy takes top billing in the more entertaining, less offensive "The Haunted Mansion." Yes, a Disney movie based on one of its own theme park attractions is more tasteful than an adaptation of one of the most beloved children's stories of all time. Go figure.

In "Mansion," we meet Jim Evers (Murphy) of Evers & Evers Real Estate, a workaholic agent with a Cheshire Cat's grin and a Velveeta-smooth sales pitch: "We want you to be happy for evers and evers." After missing an anniversary celebration with wife Sara (Marsha Thomason), who also hawks houses for a living, Jim promises to put business on hold and take the family to the lake for a weekend. But before the couple and their two children -- meek 10-year-old Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and the older, tougher Megan (Aree Davis) -- can leave, Sara gets a phone call from a mysterious man who wants her to visit an old manor that may be up for sale. If you've ever heard a ghost story or watched a few seconds of a Scooby-Doo cartoon, you can guess what happens next: The whole family stops at the house en route to the lake. But they never get to the lake because it turns out the mansion is . . . haunted! But you probably figured that out from the title, right?

Obviously, "Haunted Mansion" isn't breaking any new narrative ground. Once inside the stately yet sinister estate, the Evers family encounters all of the usual Dracula's-castle-style creep-outs: a ghastly butler (Terence Stamp); bookcases that lead to secret passageways; doors that breathe; and, of course, several creations that will look familiar to anyone who's ridden a Doom Buggy through the Haunted Mansion at a Disney amusement park. The Everses also slowly realize that the master of the house, ghostly Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), believes Sara is his long-lost love, Elizabeth, and wants to marry her. Dad and the two kids try to thwart that scheme with help from a pair of kindhearted specters (Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters) and crystal ball psychic Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly).

This latest in Murphy's string of family vehicles isn't perfect. The comedy induces fewer giggles than it should and the plot raises questions that are never answered. How does a Victorian manor that's haunted mostly by British people end up on the outskirts of an American suburb? And wouldn't that massive mausoleum violate the covenants of the homeowners' association?

Alas, these are mysteries that even Shaggy and Velma couldn't solve. Besides, the point of "Haunted Mansion" is for audiences to sit back and enjoy the ride, which is easy to do thanks to an engaging story, the striking, Gothic-inspired set by Oscar-winner John Myhre and some delightful special effects, including the cemetery busts that double as a barbershop quartet.

Though it might seem like "Mansion" should have been released at Halloween, its underlying message about the importance of family over career fits nicely with the themes of Thanksgiving. And its arrival this weekend also gives moms and dads an alternative to that vulgar feline, which may be "Mansion's" greatest selling point.

THE HAUNTED MANSION (PG, 98 minutes) -- Contains frightening images, thematic elements and coarse language. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company