You don't have to sit through much of "The Haunted Mansion" before you realize Eddie Murphy isn't going to pull off what Johnny Depp did for "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl."
This time around, the star's wacky antics can't salvage a lame movie based on a theme park ride.
Murphy plods through this would-be comic frightfest without a hint of enthusiasm or fun. Playing a workaholic huckster of a real-estate agent who can't connect with his family, he's painfully insincere, as if he knows too well how far beneath him the material is. It's enough to make his work in "Daddy Day Care" look like the inspired stylings of a comic genius.
"The Haunted Mansion" is so forced, so mechanical, it's even worse than the scenes without Depp in "Pirates" - a stunning achievement.
Compared with sitting through this, snaking through a 90-minute line at Disney World would feel like sweet relief.
Murphy is Jim Evers, who runs Evers & Evers Real Estate of New Orleans with wife Sarah (Marsha Thomason). While planning a weekend getaway with their kids - 13 year-old Megan (Aree Davis) and 10-year-old Michael (Marc John Jefferies) - they get a call from Ramsley (Terence Stamp), the zonked-out Gracie Manor butler who indicates the owner wants to sell.
Ramsley asks for Sarah to come alone, but she brings her kids and loudmouth husband along, intending just to take a peek at the property. But a storm forces them to spend the night.
The mansion has a history, involving an ancestor of Master Gracie (Nathaniel Parker), whose romance with a doppleganger of Sarah ended tragically and has left the house, you know, haunted. Exactly how haunted will soon become clear to the Evers family, although the audience is way ahead of them.
The romantic story line raises some apparently unintended questions. An affair a century ago between an Englishman living in New Orleans and a black woman may well have caused a stir, but we never learn what brought Gracie to America or how his beloved Elizabeth came to inhabit his social sphere. Instead, we are encouraged to think about it as little as possible.
But then, why did there have to be a thwarted romance? And why did the resolution have to be so simple? This is an adaptation of a theme park ride, not a Jane Austen novel - the story possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the screenwriter.
But then "The Haunted Mansion" smacks of a rush job, as if it went into production with a barely completed first draft by David Berenbaum (who wrote "Elf") so that Disney could have a theme park movie for Thanksgiving.
It certainly doesn't appear that director Rob Minkoff ("Stuart Little") was given much time to work on the spectral effects, which are hardly an advancement over 1984's "Ghostbusters."
The capable supporting cast includes Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters as ghostly servants and Jennifer Tilly - who manages to outshine the rest of the cast - as a gypsy fortune teller whose head appears inside a crystal ball.
"The Haunted Mansion" is a waste of time, money, talent and, in the case of Murphy, a precious natural resource.
"The Haunted Mansion," a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG for frightening images, thematic elements and language. Running time: 98 minutes. One star out of four.
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