If the hugely successful 'Pirates of the Caribbean' phenomenon represents the ultimate winning synergy between art and corporate commerce, then 'The Haunted Mansion' represents its nadir: a loud, clumsy and overbloated would-be blockbuster that screams "high concept." I guess we can't blame Disney for trying to bleed the theme park ride-as-movie-franchise turnip one more time following the huge grosses for 'Pirates,' but it is a shame they took what is probably their most well-known attraction and turned it into such an innocuous, bland movie. 'The Haunted Mansion' could have been a new classic like 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' or even a more upscale 'Casper,' but instead it feels like a second-rate Disney Channel movie.
According to the back of the Blu-ray box, "From the studio that brought you 'Pirates of the Caribbean!'" comes this "fright-filled comedy-adventure with eye-popping special effects." Eddie Murphy stars as Jim Evers, a hotshot real estate agent who spends too much time at work and not enough time at home. But on the eve of his wedding anniversary, he decides to surprise his ever-supportive wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) and sarcastic kids Michael (Marc John Jefferies) and Megan (Aree Davis) with a weekend getaway... but not before making one quick stop at a creepy old abandoned mansion at the request of the mysterious Mr. Ramsley (Terence Stamp). But all is not what it seems, and soon the Evers are thrust into a scary plot by the mansion's original, long-deceased owner Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) to reclaim what was rightfully his -- including his late wife, who looks suspiciously like Sara.
I gotta admit it -- I secretly enjoyed 'The Haunted Mansion.' I know it is not a good movie -- in fact, it is quite mediocre -- but I'm a total sucker for a good haunted house story. Give me creaky doors, flickering candles and curtains blowing in the wind, and I am a happy guy. And 'The Haunted Mansion' has plenty of atmosphere. No, the film is not nearly as ornate and classy as the theme park ride, but the production and costume design are quite lavish, and the mansion itself is quite a character in its own right. I also enjoyed a few of the clever nods to the attraction, especially the mansion cemetery's barbershop choir -- a quartet of singing headstones that gives the film a much-needed dose of wit and whimsy.
A film like 'The Haunted Mansion' is hardly about the performances, but director Rob ('Stuart Little') Minkoff managed to attract a fairly strong ensemble. Murphy continues his decline into family-friendly hell as the film's straight man -- a role far, far removed from his early caustic work in such R-rated comedies as '48 Hours' and 'Trading Places' -- but manages a few flashes of his trademark panache with some witty zingers (he and Stamp play off each other particularly well). Thomason is also likable as Sara, though she is mere window dressing to the plot and there is little one can do with such limited material. But best of all is Jennifer Tilly, who manages to create a memorable performance with her head stuck in a fishbowl the entire movie. She elevates her threadbare dialogue to the level of inspired lunacy, and should have been the template the rest of the film followed.
Perhaps that's what 'The Haunted Mansion' needed a bit more of -- genuine danger. It is saying something that 'Pirates of the Caribbean' was a much scarier movie, and managed to sustain a tone of fright, adventure and comedy far more successfully. There is little in 'The Haunted Mansion' that will appeal to anyone over the age of, say, eight years old. It's pleasant, light-hearted, innocuous and non-threatening -- and ultimately forgettable. Which is too bad, because with a bit more grit and scares, 'The Haunted Mansion' could have been something really special.
'The Haunted Mansion' leads Disney's second wave of Blu-ray titles. I wasn't entirely blown away by the studio's first batch, which included 'Dinosaur,' 'Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back' and the best of the bunch, 'Eight Below,' but I still had high hopes for this go-round. Unfortunately, 'The Haunted Mansion' is another miss for me, a transfer that is perfectly fine on its own but just didn't blow me away like a first-rate Blu-ray title should.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/MPEG-2 video, 'The Haunted Mansion' looks colorful and vivid, but also a bit dark, soft and slightly noisy. The source material is in great shape with no visible defects such as dirt or dropouts, and blacks are rock solid throughout. However, the image appears a bit too dark to my eyes. Shadow delineation suffers somewhat from a stiff fall-off into black, as if fine details are crushed down to nothing in the darkest areas of the picture. That is critical for a film like 'The Haunted Mansion,' which is supposed to be moody, not murky.
Colors are also problematic. Hues seem somewhat oversaturated, with skintones lacking fine detail. There seems to be an orange/reddish filter over everything, which leaves faces appearing a bit off. However, the transfer excels with the luscious blues and greens, which are quite striking and appealing. Unfortunately, chroma noise appears to be evident with recurring frequency, with shots suffering from crawling dots of various sizes in patches of solid color and backgrounds, particularly skies. Detail, too, is good but hardly exceptional. 'The Haunted Mansion' never looks truly three-dimensional, and on Blu-ray never delivers the level of upgrade over standard-def that I expect. Certainly, this is not a terrible transfer by any means -- some moments are quite good, really -- but I can't lie and say I didn't want something stronger.
Unlike the video, the audio for 'The Haunted Mansion' delivers. Disney offers up an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (encoded at 48kHz/24-bit) and it is appropriately atmospheric and immersive. The film benefits from some clever sound design, so if nothing else, 'The Haunted Mansion' is a fun ride for your home theater to take.
Separation between all channels is very distinct. Effects are spread out all over the place, and the uncompressed PCM is excellent at reproducing fine sonic details with great clarity. I especially enjoyed the midnight horse and carriage ride the family takes outside the mansion, as well as the graveyard scenes -- the surrounds really come alive, and the 360-degree soundfield that is created is wonderfully enveloping. Dynamic range, too, is up there with the best home theater soundtracks. Mid- and high-range is wonderfully full and spacious, and low end deep and strong. Though 'The Haunted Mansion' never overpowers like a huge action film might, it is constantly active and aggressive, and really elevates the fun factor of the film up a notch.
Unlike Disney's first wave of Blu-ray titles, their second batch is more feature-packed. Though not a fully-loaded special edition, 'The Haunted Mansion' does feature a few of the extras from the standard-def release. We even get a trio of extras exclusive to the Blu-ray release, but more on those below.
First, we have the same screen-specific audio commentary as the previous DVD. Director Rob Minkoff, producer Don Hahn and screenwriter David Berenbaum are lively and engaging, and even if the film failed to find much of an audience, they don't seem to notice. They tackle the key question of just how one goes about turning a theme park ride into a movie with plenty of insight into all aspects of the production, including the usual discussion of pre-production, writing casting and the effects. If the trio sometimes delves a bit too much into banalities -- there is actually a brief discussion of the curtains in one scene -- they still hit all the bases within the film's short 88-minute runtime.
Next up is the featurette "Anatomy of a Scene: Ghosts in the Graveyard" (11 minutes). It offers a peek at the complicated combination of physical, blue screen and miniature effects required to pull off the film's most elaborate sequence. Not a bad little vignette, though admittedly most of the material has been covered before on countless other DVD making-of featurettes. (Note that although the back of the box states that all of the disc's bonus features are presented in 1080p or 1080i video, this featurette is presented in 4:3 full screen only and looks more like 480p standard-def video to me.)
Unfortunately, no theatrical trailers for 'The Haunted Mansion' are provided, though I did enjoy the Disney pre-movie Blu-ray promo, which features clips from the upcoming Blu-ray release of 'Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.' How about a release date already, Disney?
'The Haunted Mansion' should have made an ideal film for Disney to follow up the blockbuster 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' which proved that a theme park ride can be successfully turned into a movie. Unfortunately, 'The Haunted Mansion' isn't it. While I still enjoyed the film, that's likely only because I like haunted house movies -- even bad ones. As for this Blu-ray release, it is a mixed bag. I didn't love the transfer, but the soundtrack is excellent and there are a strong number of exclusive HD extras. Still, I'd say proceed with caution because of the spotty transfer -- or leave it as a rental for the little ones in the family.