When Disney announced it would create films based on its theme park attractions, all sentient beings in the universe thought: Uh-oh. This is gonna suck.
The moronic “Country Bears” (2002) did nothing to allay our fears, but then the world was pleasantly surprised by “Pirates of the Caribbean” (2003), which was a fine swashbuckling adventure — though, I hasten to add, one with little connection to the ride it was allegedly based on.
Now comes “The Haunted Mansion,” which sticks close to its source material (dangerous idea) and which stars former celebrity Eddie Murphy (dangerous idea). But in the hands of talented director Rob Minkoff (“Stuart Little,” “The Lion King”) and new writer David Berenbaum (“Elf”), we get to be pleasantly surprised again. It starts slow, but once it gets going, it’s a healthy dose of good, spooky family fun.
Murphy stars as Jim Evers, a real estate agent who, like most working fathers in movies, especially those played by Eddie Murphy, works too hard and neglects his family. His wife and business partner, Sara (Marsha Thomason), convinces him to take a weekend off with the kids, Megan (Aree Davis) and Michael (Marc John Jefferies), but he insists they stop for “20 minutes at the most” at a potential client’s house.
The client is Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), and the listing is a dilapidated old mansion on the Louisiana bayou that has been in his family for generations. He wants a fresh start elsewhere, he says; too many memories (“ghosts,” one might say) in the place. But before the Everses can leave, Gracey’s ghastly butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp) announces that the rainstorm has made the roads impassable; they will have to stay the night.
From there it’s a series of frights and set pieces as the family learns the history of the mansion and what they must do to lift its curse. The film deftly walks the line between funny and scary, never becoming so much of one that the audience can’t also feel the other. In the category of funny, Jim and the kids encounter a quartet of busts that start out singing barbershop tunes but that soon begin turning whatever Jim says into a song. Shortly thereafter, we have the film’s scariest sequence, set in a mausoleum full of living skeletons, in pursuit of Jim and Megan.
Kids will probably find most of it scary in a fun way, but you know your kids better than I do. (I haven’t even met your kids.) Be advised that a few moments are fairly intense, even if they are lightened by the cast’s wise-cracking and the film’s general sense of amusement-park giddiness.
In all, it’s neither as clever nor as campy as the attraction it’s based on, but it’s a suitable representation of its, er, spirit. I still hope they don’t make “Spinning Teacups: The Movie,” but if they do, maybe there’s a chance it will be OK.
B- (1 hr., 38 min.; )