Ready or not, Halloween time is upon us! And if you’re anything like us, spooky movies REALLY get us into that Halloween spirit! But in a world of Hocus Pocus and Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s one haunting Disney movie that often gets a bad shake.
Let’s head back to fall of 2003. Disney had just blown up with their first successful foray into attractions-turned-into-movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. They KNEW it would be such a hit, in fact, that they had already gone all-in on their next ride-to-movie: The Haunted Mansion.
Haunted Mansion checked all the same boxes that made Pirates a hit: non-stop nods to the attraction for the fans, flashy CGI effects, a great soundtrack, and a big-name star headlining. Yet a mere half-year after Pirates blew up, Mansion was widely regarded as a flop.
No one can say for sure why the film was so poorly received. The release date could have played a part; it came out for Thanksgiving, but it was clearly more suited for Halloween audiences. One hard-to-ignore likely cause of its poor reception can certainly be attributed to its star. While Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow complimented the swashbuckling world he was based in, Eddie Murphy took over Mansion. It’s not really his fault; Murphy’s distinctive voice can’t be tamed, and that’s part of why we love him! But if you close your eyes, you could easily pretend Donkey from Shrek or Mushu from Mulan was being chased by ghosts! Instead of bringing his star power to the film, viewers saw and heard Eddie Murphy first, with the film playing a very quiet second fiddle.
But it’s not all bad! In fact, if you can look past Eddie Murphy doing his thing, there’s actually a lot of redeeming qualities to the movie, especially for fans of the ride.
Here are some reasons you SHOULD add The Haunted Mansion to your Halloween movie rotation this year.
The plot of The Haunted Mansion is actually…not bad. The backstory is set in the southern elegance of old New Orleans, much like the original Disneyland Mansion. A wealthy man by the name of Gracey falls in love with a servant in his house — a biiiiig no-no in those days. When the servant appears to commit suicide out of guilt, a despondent Gracey hangs himself, cursing the inhabitants of the home to eternal purgatory.
Believing the curse can be broken and the souls set free if the doomed lovers are reunited, the Mansion’s butler, Ramsley, finds a woman who looks eerily like the lost servant girl in modern-day and tricks her into coming to the Mansion. He believes if this doppelganger dies, she can be with Gracey eternally and release the curse. (Yeah, it’s a stretch, just go with it.)
The woman, along with her family, arrives at the Mansion, and Ramsley’s plan to kill and reunite the “couple” is put into action. Her family discovers the truth and fights to save her from meeting her fate with the help of the benign residents of the Mansion. SPOILER ALERT: We ultimately learn that Ramsley poisoned the servant girl back in the day, not approving of Gracey’s love of a lower-class girl and that her soul has been lurking around the Mansion ever since. The truth of the butler’s evil actions is revealed, and the servant girl’s spirit is reunited with Gracey, freeing all the souls of the Mansion. The story itself is actually pretty interesting once you take out the pandering to its lead, and even that is easy enough to look past.
The heart of the story is the ghosts — the happy haunts, if you please. They’re doomed to haunt the Mansion until their unfinished business is resolved. The family only really comes into play to help accomplish that goal. The Evers family is really the supporting cast, not the stars.
The Mansion itself is a character in the movie as much as any of the actors are. The house is designed heavily based on the Disneyland New Orleans plantation model. Some nods to the Walt Disney World design show through in the conservatory jutting out to the side and the designs within.
When watching the movie, it’s hard to not want to see more and more of the Mansion itself. The graveyard, the mausoleum, the haunted hallways with intricate detailings all tell a story. This house has sat for a LONG time. Gracey died hanging in its rafters, elaborate parties were once held inside its walls.
Go back and rewatch the movie and, especially if you appreciate the ride, you’ll be shocked by how many details you’ll spot that you missed on first viewing. Great care was put into the set design to work in oodles of backstory and ties to the ride that are lost on the surface. Doorknobs, wallpaper, chairbacks, and candlesticks will all leave you going “Ohhh, that’s actually pretty cool…”
Did you know the chairs in the dining room are the same chairs Captain Jack Sparrow sits in to greet guests at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean in both Disneyland and Disney World? SO MANY cool hidden secrets.
The 999 Happy Haunts
Ok, so the movie doesn’t actually ever acknowledge that this Mansion houses 999 happy haunts, but one look at the graveyard certainly seems to lean in its favor. The Mansion is home to a GIANT graveyard out back. It’s a powerful image to present viewers. A LOT of people are buried behind this house and are now trapped as a result.
When Jim Evers and his children hop in the horseless carriage we know and love from in front the rides (with skeletal horses pulling it here) we see a plethora of ghosts and ghouls we know and love from the attraction.
The dueling ghosts (from the ballroom in the ride) the hitchhiking ghosts, the singing busts — even the caretaker and his dog — in the film are ghosts now haunting the grounds. Upon re-viewing, the Evers family in their hearse is treated to a personalized version of the graveyard scene from the ride! All the wacky guests are present, and there are so many unique characters to spot! Go look at the ghosts again — they’re pretty awesome!
The ghosts and, in the mausoleum, the zombies, are fascinating parts of the film to explore. The zombies seen in this movie are equally well-suited to live in the Walking Dead, but here they are in a children’s movie!
They are CREEPY. Combined with the whimsical ghosts in the graveyard, it’s a shockingly good parallel to the duality of the ride — half scary, half funny.
Did you realize before the movie, the Master Gracey tombstone at both of the main Mansions was not a big deal at all for most guests?
“Master Gracey Laid to Rest. No Mourning Please at His Request. Farewell.” Yep, the grave featured at both Mansions has now led most guests to assume the Mansion is, in fact, Gracey Mansion. Much of this was encouraged by the film. In actuality, Master Gracey was named after Imagineer Yale Gracey, a key player in the initial development of the attraction. His tombstone was one of the original in the graveyard outside the Disneyland Mansion placed as nods to its creators, but nothing more.
In the film, Gracey replaces our Ghost Host as the corpse seen hanging in the rafters. He has lived in this house for over 100 years and continues to haunt it in present day, lovestruck and doomed forever to haunt the halls.
I’m not going to argue Jennifer Tilly’s Madame Leota is perfect. But she’s also not that bad either. She has the look and even a spunky attitude to go with it.
They could have easily turned Leota into a rehashed gag throughout the film, but they didn’t. She’s used to help further the story. She captures the spirit of the classic Leota, but gives her more personality.
Nods to the Ride
For fans of the attractions, there is SO MUCH to find in this movie, but it’s so subtly done that viewers who aren’t familiar with the ride don’t have it thrown in their faces.
The raven seen throughout the ride makes multiple appearances, most notably on top of a mirror quite reminiscent of the chairback he sits on in the Seance Room of the ride. When the children near the attic, a beating heart can be heard, much like the ride. The haunted hallway is here as well, with the same eerie changing paintings and haunted busts looking around the room.
Even at the end of the film, one of the servants carries a hatbox as she leaves the mansion. Hmm, where have we seen that hatbox before?? 🙂
One really clever piece of furniture is the red chair in the library. It’s a weird-looking chair, right? Well, it’s also the original chair from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Many fans of the ride know the pipe organ in the Disneyland ballroom scene is the original organ used in the film as well. This was a clever way to throwback to that piece of Disney history.
The singing busts in the graveyard are one of the most iconic symbols of the ride, but did you know in the film they’re voiced by none other than Disneyland’s Dapper Dans? Who better to record their audio than Disneyland’s own singing quartet! Rewatch the film, especially with the ride fresh in your mind, and enjoy all the fun details thrown in for ride fans.
We know the movie’s not perfect. But it’s also still a lot of fun to watch and really didn’t deserve the bad rep it acquired. I, for one, will be queueing it up in my Halloween film rotation this year and hope you give it another shot too.
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