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Another (Relative) Blast From The Past: THE HAUNTED MANSION (Disney)

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Old 12-27-2008, 04:08 AM   #1  
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Default Another (Relative) Blast From The Past: THE HAUNTED MANSION (Disney)

It was a matter of time until the unwavering, unbridled success of the Pirates of the Caribbean ride-turned-motion picture phenomenon needed to be followed up and attempted once more -- the temptation was too great; of course, there were dozens of possibilities that could have been explored just considering the variety of rides that were so popular at Walt's parks. But when the concept of turning one of the Magic Kingdom's oldest and most charming attractions, The Haunted Mansion, into a motion picture as Jerry Bruckheimer did when producing Pirates, the idea, while intriguing on paper, raised many eyebrows.

Don't get me wrong -- it was indeed a very cool concept; I can remember seeing trailers for The Haunted Mansion and immediately thinking how it was about time another Disney attraction had a film made out of it, and even though it looked sooo PG-ish and had the antics of I'm-too-clean-now Eddie Murphy at the helm, I was anxious to see if the studio could live up to the wildly successful Pirates. I grew up, like most kids, always somehow ending up at Walt Disney World -- well, more times at California's Disneyland -- for each and every vacation. My favorite rides were the Runaway Train, Star Tours, Matterhorn Bobsleds, Pirates, Peter Pan and of course The Haunted Mansion. Something always seemed creepy about shuffling into that "elevator" amidst the swarm of dozens of other people at one time, with the lights going dark and the room dropping to reveal the weird paintings around you. Once that narration voice came on asking "Is it your imagination...or is this room really stretching?" I was havin' fun.

As I said, there was something definitely intriguing about basing a film on this ride, after the success Disney enjoyed bringing those swashbuckling buccaneers to the big screen in Pirates, and while the studio ramped up the inevitable sequels for that franchise, Rob Minkoff began putting together some pieces for a Haunted Mansion project. What could have been a wild spinoff of the Pirates series ended up kind of falling flat, and has become a largely forgotten relic in Disney's Buena Vista home video vaults. However, the film is not without its charms, many of which I shall outline below. I received the Blu-ray of The Haunted Mansion as another holiday gift, and got around to viewing it tonight.

I can recall seeing this with my ex in theaters, just because I was intrigued by the concept and was a Disney freak as a kid, and walking out feeling unbelievably disappointed -- let's be honest and say I thought it sucked Donkey Kong Kock. Eddie Murphy was a complete jackoff in it, I thought at the time, doing what he does best -- attempting to "prove" that he no longer wants anything to do with his past stand up raunchy comedy and wants to commit 200 percent to making these "family" and kids films; whatever -- and the plot got so convoluted towards the end that you lost sight of what this was supposed to be about...a cool haunted house on the Louisiana swamp. However, I recently rented the DVD because my current fiancé was a Disney fan as a kid too, and she had never seen it -- she liked it and I admittingly found a new soft spot for The Haunted Mansion that I didn't have leaving the theater when I first viewed it.

If you let yourself in on the "feel" of the film, it does indeed remind you of the ride at the park. While Johnny Depp headed the big screen adaptation of the Pirates ride as a rogue, outlaw pirate with a charm of his own, Eddie Murphy takes the lead in The Haunted Mansion to ground a plot involving an old rickety house at the edge of a swamp. The film opens depicting a flashback to a grisly happening at the house centuries earlier involving a young man and woman and her demise at the house. As the film enters the present day, we meet Jim Evers (Murphy) of Evers and Evers Realty, a real estate firm he runs with his gorgeous wife Marsha Thomason. As the couple prepares to celebrate their anniversary one evening, they get a call from a grizzly-sounding butler (played by Terence Stamp of Superman II) who asks them to look at an old mansion to be put on the market. The problem is, Stamp wants Thomason to come alone -- and there's something strange about that.

Murphy and family make a detour from their weekend plans to view this mansion because Murphy's character is just so obsessed with selling homes he can't see past it. The sets really do look like they were plucked right from the ride at the park -- the mansion looks incredibly accurate, the rusty gates, the swamp...it does have the feel of the Haunted Mansion ride. But not so much as the Pirates of the Caribbean feels like the Pirates ride -- it's not nearly as authentic. At any rate, Stamp, appearing as a pale white, haggard old servant, lets them into the house and they are immediately introduced to the younger man who is "owner" of the mansion. There is an immediate connection between him and Thomason, and that's where the plot got a bit off the rails.

It seems this man, now a ghost like everyone else in the mansion of course, has falsely identified Thomason as his long lost love Elizabeth, whom he thought had killed herself in the house, thus separating them forever. They do look alike -- paintings of Elizabeth around the mansion reveal a woman almost identical to Thomason's character. But there's a more sinister plot here: Apparently, Stamp's character actually murdered Elizabeth by poisoning her because he didn't want the man to marry her (the reasoning for all this is very sketchy and it's a huge weak point to the film; the script needed a lot more work) and now they both think Thomason is the real Elizabeth reincarnated. As Stamp plots and schemes for ways to now get Thomason to marry the man -- because apparently doing so will release some kind of curse all the ghosts in the mansion are plagued by -- Murphy's character is distracted by sinister hallways, ghostly voices and an image of a gypsy suspended in a crystal ball (played by Jennifer Tilly).

But the whole ridiculous plot is not really what you should be taking in when watching The Haunted Mansion -- there are so many cues from the ride thrown in, and that's what makes it most intriguing, especially if you were a fan of the ride as a kid. The Jennifer Tilly talking ball comes right from the ride, as does the bulging, creaking door and the flying band instruments. Then, there are the singing statue heads and the ghosts floating in the adjacent graveyard. While not nearly as an effective final product as Pirates, it was a decent attempt at bringing the feel of the ride to the screen.

Anyway, there's a surprise appearance by Wallace Shawn (Vegas Vacation) who plays, along with his female counterpart, one of the ghosts trying to hide Murphy's kids from Stamp and his plot to eliminate all of them so Thomason can marry his master. All in all, it's a fun 80 or so minute romp that you really can't go into too seriously. The plot gets even more convoluted as it reaches the final stages though, with Murphy being led to a key that opens a trunk by the gypsy, and then with him discovering a note that the real "Elizabeth" wrote implicating Stamp's character for her murder. By now, Murphy's wife is in a wedding dress getting ready to marry a ghost as everyone has convinced her she is Elizabeth reincarnated, but before the ceremony can be completed, Murphy crashes the wedding and reveals the letter to the groom. Confused yet? Well, it gets worse: The real Elizabeth comes in the form of a blue ball that has been chasing Murphy's kids around the mansion and slips into Thomason's body so the lover can be reunited with her before their souls go into heaven...somehow, someway that curse is broken. I didn't get it.

But as I said, it was more fun on home video, and being a fan of the ride when I was a kid let me be a bit more open to the experience. It's a film I can recommend for families, kids and adults alike when you're just in the mood for something light and fun -- and when your brain needs a break from the visceral intensity of all the Dark Knights, Iron Mans and Incredible Hulks out there.

VIDEO ANALYSIS:
RESOLUTION: 1080p
TRANSFER ASPECT RATIO: 2.35:1

When I rented the DVD version of The Haunted Mansion just a couple of months ago, I can recall being surprised at the very pristine video quality of the widescreen transfer -- Buena Vista/Disney at their best for 480 resolution. I expected the Blu-ray I popped in tonight to better that presentation in almost all areas. The 2.35:1 transfer of this 1080p encode started off a bit disappointing, believe it or not -- opening credit shots were marred with a bit of twitchy dithering in the background, and the image didn't look too stable. Worse, some instances appeared a bit flat and DVD-like. But once the initial flashback sequence in the opening chapter passed and the actual film began in the present day, it began looking better. Pores in Murphy's skin, and other actors, were immediately noticeable. The opening shot of the mansion during the day at the back of the swamp looked deep, natural and almost organic; that dithering twitch I mentioned popped up from time to time, but there were some scenes that were downright gorgeous, even interior shots.

While I wouldn't, by any means, call this a dull, "bad" transfer, it didn't exactly knock me through my wall, either. I am beginning, perhaps, to expect just too much out of this format or too much from my 1080p rear projection display. I bought into, like most of us, the whole "MIND-DIZZYING RESOLUTION JUMP!" marketing hoopla Sony and the BD Association threw at us upon this format's launch, and I expected characters and scenery to basically be sitting in your living room with you, right in your lap -- not literally, but you know what I mean. Many discs I view just don't even look that much different from their DVD counterparts to me. My fiancé was dazzled by the transfer of The Haunted Mansion on Blu -- it was good, yes, but it doesn't hold "transfer of the century" places in my heart.

It was, however, a solid, CLEAN looking transfer. Compared to the DVD, the image was more stable and exhibited less blurring, banding and smearing.

AUDIO ANALYSIS:
ENGLISH 5.1 UNCOMPRESSED (48 kHz/24-bit); ENGLISH, FRENCH & SPANISH 5.1 DOLBY DIGITAL; SUBTITLES IN ENGLISH SDH, FRENCH & SPANISH

Lo and behold, we have a Warner Brothers situation on this Disney/Buena Vista disc -- what do I mean by that? You know how all Warner Blu-rays to date automatically begin playing their default Dolby Digital lossy track when you insert a disc? Well, The Haunted Mansion did the same and I curse Disney for this because it really is a pain in the ass. As the disc loads, which didn't take long at all, you are greeted with the standard Disney Blu-ray trailer and then the piracy warning video. From there, a screen announces that the film is about to start -- it does, but the disc selects the lossy Dolby Digital mix instead of the Uncompressed PCM track. I had to interrupt the beginning of the film to switch to the Uncompressed mix, and it totally interrupted the experience for me.

Perhaps I should have left the film on its Dolby mix because it sounded damn good -- in fact, like what happens to my ears when watching the Pirates Blu-rays, it actually seemed like bass heft and overall dynamics WENT DOWN when I switched to the Uncompressed PCM track -- now, in all fairness, this could have something to do with the way my player deals with PCM audio processing. Yet, once the film got started, and there were directional effects cues, the PCM mix really opened up and showed off.

The Dolby Digital track on the DVD was no slouch at all, and I remember that -- I suppose all those scenes that were aggressive and lively were simply made more so with the PCM audio. The flapping of birds' wings in the surround channels, the breaking of glass, the crashing of thunder, the pitter-patter of rain and the standout scene when Murphy is being chased by flying musical instruments all sounded great. When the film started, it was deceiving -- as I said, the Dolby mix, when suddenly switched to PCM, seemed more forceful and aggressive in the very opening title sequence. But when the action heats up towards the middle, the PCM mix borders on "wildly aggressive" as flying drums, trumpets and horns woosh realistically through all channels around you in the soundscape. I actually had to keep turning the master volume down on my system because it was getting too loud for our apartment.

Still...while a fun, active lively mix, I couldn't help but think -- as I do with the Pirates films -- that the Uncompressed PCM track on this disc didn't really dramatically change much "wow" factor over the Dolby track...I've had this reservation about high resolution audio since the launch of the format; what exactly IS the hype about Uncompressed audio tracks? Is TrueHD REALLY all that much nerve-bending and rip-roaring as to change the whole EXPERIENCE of the films, as were lead to believe? On most titles, I just don't hear it.

The best feature on the Extras portion has to be the history of The Haunted Mansion attraction at Disney, which includes, like on the Pirates discs, old footage of Walt himself talking about the ride, what went into it, the beginnings and the evolution and interviews with people involved in making it. It was framed at a very strange ratio, however.

Last edited by Peter Marlowe; 12-27-2008 at 04:02 PM..
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Old 12-28-2008, 05:13 PM   #2  
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Yet another outstanding review, thanks like always!

-Jason
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Old 12-28-2008, 06:22 PM   #3  
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Yet another outstanding review, thanks like always!

-Jason
Thanks a million, Jason -- it's appreciated.

Have you ever seen Haunted Mansion? You gonna give it a rental spin?
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Old 12-29-2008, 04:43 PM   #4  
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Yet another outstanding review, thanks like always!

-Jason
Hey J --

You didn't tell me if you rented this or not yet!
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Old 12-31-2008, 04:06 PM   #5  
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Thanks Peter for another excellent review. I have just bought this in a 3 for 2 so i should get it next week!
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Old 01-01-2009, 07:11 PM   #6  
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Thanks Peter for another excellent review. I have just bought this in a 3 for 2 so i should get it next week!
You got it, Sigill! Thanks for reading and glad the review could be of help to you!

What kind of deal was this 3 for 2? Was it just a Disney thing in the UK?
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Old 01-01-2009, 09:40 PM   #7  
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You got it, Sigill! Thanks for reading and glad the review could be of help to you! What kind of deal was this 3 for 2? Was it just a Disney thing in the UK?
I got it in a deal at Amazon. Co.uk. They have got around 200 titles in the offer. Theres a decent selection and theres quite a few region free titles aswell so it might be worth having a look to see if you fancy anything!
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Old 01-02-2009, 12:55 PM   #8  
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I got it in a deal at Amazon. Co.uk. They have got around 200 titles in the offer. Theres a decent selection and theres quite a few region free titles aswell so it might be worth having a look to see if you fancy anything!
Thanks a lot for the info!

But what was it that made it "3 for 2"?
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Old 01-02-2009, 03:08 PM   #9  
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Thanks a lot for the info! But what was it that made it "3 for 2"?
You have to pick 3 titles and you get the cheapest one free. Its basically just buy 2 get 1 free. I picked up Gone in 60 seconds and The nightmare before christmas for the other 2 titles!
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Old 01-02-2009, 06:24 PM   #10  
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Very cool...

Enjoy your titles!

Let me know how Gone in 60 Seconds looked and sounded, as that was on my list of possible double-dips...
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Old 01-03-2009, 11:03 AM   #11  
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Very cool... Enjoy your titles! Let me know how Gone in 60 Seconds looked and sounded, as that was on my list of possible double-dips...
No probs, will do.
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Old 01-05-2009, 08:38 PM   #12  
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No probs, will do.
Thanks Sig!

Hey Jason -- did you ever get the chance to see this yet??? You didn't answer me back!
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