The Haunted Mansion

Posted on December 2, 2003 at 11:27 am

D
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Mild
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Scary and spooky with creepy and grisly images, including murder, suicide, skeletons
Diversity Issues: Issue of mixed marriages raised
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

When Disney makes a movie based on a theme park ride, it is not about inspiration, it is about branding. Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl managed to be a delight — and a huge hit — but that’s because it had imagination and verve. Apparently, there was none left over.

This is an overstuffed and under-imagined attempt to turn a six-minute ride into a 90 minute picture. The plot is as thin as spider webs and is as predictable as a Scooby-Doo episode. The result is barely worth the price of a video rental, even from 99 cent bin.

Jim Evers (Eddie Murphy whose role as an eager-to-please realtor tests even his facile smile) and his lovely wife Sara (Marsha Thomason) spontaneously head out of town to celebrate their wedding anniversary and spend some time with the family. He has two kids, Megan (Aree Davis), the fearless and bossy big sister, and Michael (Marc John Jefferies) the timid and arachnophobic young son. Jim neglects his family for “it will only be 20 minutes” business meetings that turn into hours, and his wife and children are unhappy.

A mysterious caller requests that Sara be the agent for a mansion outside of town, and Jim insists on another one of his “just 20 minutes” stops to seal the deal. Of course, a storm rolls into the bayou and the family must stay overnight as a guest in the atmospheric household of Edward Gracey (Nathaniel Parker) and his spooky butler Ramsley (Terence Stamp). Once the doors slam shut, the family must solve the mystery of the mansion before they can leave together again.

The theme park ride moves quickly. Although the people in it race around, the the movie drags. While Jim’s spiel is a lighthearted patter complemented by his kids’ matter of fact acceptance of their surroundings, the resulting dialogue feels off-key and smarmy. Madame Leota (Jennifer Tilly) and the barbershop quartet of singing sculptures keep filler scenes from becoming too slow, but you have to wonder at a movie where disembodied heads turn in the movie’s most interesting performances. Thomason, as Mrs. Evers, shows little acting range beyond looking doe-eyed and bewildered at the ghost who has mistaken her for his long-ago love, while Terence Stamp’s place-holder of a performance as the disdainful Ramsley appears to tap the actor’s immense desire to be out of the movie.

Parents should know that there are lots of chases and peril involving ghosts and skeletons, and children are in danger. The atmospherics of the crypt scenes might scare younger viewers. A ghost is dragged into a fiery pit while other ghosts dematerialize to ascend into the heavens and there are many grisly and gross images, including a rotted corpse, that might upset sensitive viewers.

There is a brief shot of drawings on a tarot card with frontal nudity and Jim says the ghost wants to “get jiggy with” his wife. Jim steals a cigar and matches. A character is poisoned and another commits suicide by hanging. Younger children might be scared when the Evers parents, Jim and Sarah, are threatened. It is not addressed explicitly, but the tragic romance that led to the house being haunted was between a black woman and a white man, which was why it was so harshly viewed. One strength of the movie is the portrayal of a loving and committed relationship between Jim and Sarah. Jim may be distracted, but he is devoted to his wife and family.

Families should discuss priorities and how different people in the same family might view an action in a very different light. For example, Jim argues that he is trying to succeed in business so that his kids will have everything they want, whereas his kids argue that they really only want time with their parents. Families might also wish to discuss being scared and how Jim explains overcoming one’s fears to his son. Should he have told his son to “be a man?”

Families who enjoy Wallace Shawn’s performance as the super-cautious ghost man-servant, will appreciate his best role as a kidnapper in the classic The Princess Bride. “Haunted” houses with plenty of eccentric characters appear in The Addams Family and Beetlejuice and classics The Cat and the Canary and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken.

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Cheaper by the Dozen

Posted on December 2, 2003 at 3:55 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Kindergarten - 3rd Grade
Profanity: Some schoolyard naughty words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril, minor injuries
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: 2003

This is not a movie; it is a product, with a script right off the assembly line, a mix of Teen People pin-ups to attract tween demographics, apparently directed on cruise control. Its intended audience of 8-14-year-olds will probably enjoy it very much. But those who care about that audience will be disappointed that the people behind this movie do not realize that they owe those children some imagination and sincerity.

The movie takes its title and family size from the classic book about the real-life Gilbreth family but has no other connection to the original and is inferior to it in every aspect.

Steve Martin plays Tom Baker, a coach who is offered his dream job at his alma mater just as his wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) hears that her book about the family has been accepted for publication. The eleven children still living at home do not want to move, but Tom promises that it will make them a stronger and happier family. But the new job is very demanding, and when Kate has to go on tour to promote the book, Tom is quickly overwhelmed by the challenges of taking care of his children.

There are the predictable “aww” moments (death of a pet, reminder that the kids might fight with each other, but they really love each other) and the predictable “ewww” moments (one child barfs and another slips and falls on it). The script is slack and lazy, incapable of a satisfying resolution for even the most reliable family-movie plot devices like a mean bully or snobby, over-protective neighbors.

Parents should know that the movie includes some schoolyard-style naughty words and PG-style sexual references that get close to a PG-13. When asked about his 12 children, Tom smirks about his wife: “I couldn’t keep her off me.” He explains that he had a vasectomy but did not wait for it to become effective, resulting in the second set of twins. And part of the plot concerns the oldest child (an adult) moving in with her boyfriend (which does not bother her parents) and whether they should be allowed to sleep together when they visit the family (which does). Some audience members may be offended by the portayal of the family as vaguely Catholic, with references to Jesus and a rosary but no evidence of religious observance. There is comic peril with some minor injuries. The product placement (Crate & Barrel) is particularly (and annoyingly) intrusive.

Families who see this movie should talk about how they work together to make sure that they achieve a balance between time for work and time for each other. How do you make sure that the family comes first? They should also talk about the way that the Baker family supports each other and what they think of Dylan’s parents.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy another big-family comedy inspired by a real story, Yours, Mine, and Ours, starring Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball. They should see the original Cheaper By the Dozen, based on the Gilbreth family, headed by pioneering efficiency engineers who used their “motion study” techniques to raise their children. The book, written by two of the children, has the best dedication in the history of literature: “To Father, who had only twelve children, and to Mother, who had twelve only children. It is well worth reading aloud to the whole family, along with its sequel, “Belles on Their Toes.” Other classic movies about the demands on parents include Martin’s Parenthood (some mature themes) directed by Ron Howard, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (starring then-child actor Ron Howard), and the Oscar-winning drama Kramer vs. Kramer along with silly comedies like Mr. Mom and Daddy Day Care.

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