Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action Edition. The Haunted Mansion

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Haunted Mansion

Year: 2003

Source materials: Based on the ride at Disney Resorts

Budget: $90 million

Box office: $182.3 million

Plot: A wealthy landowner named Gracey falls in love with a beautiful multiracial woman of one of the manor’s servants named Elizabeth Henshaw. However, he was misled into believing that his love spurned him, and later hangs himself in grief and despair after believing her death by poison to be suicide.

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Jim and Sara Evers are successful realtors with two children. When Jim misses his wedding anniversary with his wife Sara, he tries to make amends by suggesting a vacation to a nearby lake. Beforehand, Sara is contacted by the occupants of Gracey Manor, located in the Louisiana bayou. Eager to make a deal, Jim drags Sara and his children to the mansion. They meet its owner Edward Gracey, his stern butler Ramsley, and other staff members, helpful maid Emma and bumbling footman Ezra.

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When a storm floods the nearby river, Gracey allows the Evers family to stay the night. Ramsley takes Jim to the mansion’s library to discuss the deal with Gracey, but while he waits, Jim gets trapped in a secret passage. Sara talks to Gracey in the library, and as Gracey gives a tour, he talks about his past and explains his grandfather’s death after the suicide of his lover, Elizabeth, as both had plans to wed.

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Meanwhile, Megan and Michael encounter a spectral orb and follow it up to the attic, where they find a portrait of a woman eerily resembling Sara. There they converse with Emma and Ezra, whose identifying the woman as “Elizabeth”. Jim meets Madame Leota, a ghost whose head is encased in a crystal ball, but she scares him away. Jim runs into his children, Emma and Ezra, and returns to Madame Leota for answers about Elizabeth’s likeness to Sara. It is revealed that everyone in the mansion are ghosts, cursed a century ago by Gracey and Elizabeth’s suicides and can only move to the afterlife when they are reunited, and Gracey believes Sara is Elizabeth’s reincarnation.

Madame Leota sends the Evers off to the mansion’s expansive cemetery to find a key that will reveal the truth behind Elizabeth’s unusual death. Jim and Megan venture into a crypt beneath a mausoleum where they find the key, but inadvertently disturb its undead residents. They escape with help from Michael, who overcomes his arachnophobia. Madame Leota then leads them to a trunk in the attic, which Jim unlocks to find a letter written by Elizabeth to Gracey, revealing she truly loved him and wanted to marry him, leading them to conclude that she was murdered.

Ramsley suddenly appears, revealing he murdered Elizabeth to prevent Gracey from abandoning his heritage, believing their relationship was unacceptable. To hide the truth, he traps the children in a trunk, throws Jim out of the house, and magically enchants the house so Jim cannot break in and stop him.

As Gracey and Sara rendezvous in the ballroom, the former asks Sara if she can recognize him which confuses her. Desperate, he insists to Sara that she is his beloved Elizabeth. The room fills with dancing ghosts of the past which causes Sara to flee. As she runs through the corridors, Gracey reveals his true ghost-self to Sara begging her to understand and that they can finally be together. Sara insists that she is not Elizabeth and Gracey begins to have second thoughts, but Ramsley insists that it is her and in time she will remember. Ramsley blackmails her into marrying Gracey in return for her children’s safety.

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Jim drives his car through the mansion’s conservatory, rescues his children, and stops Sara and Gracey’s wedding ceremony where he gives Elizabeth’s letter to Gracey, revealing to him the truth about Elizabeth’s death and that Ramsley had lied to him about it all those years. Gracey confronts Ramsley, who rages at his master’s apparent selfishness for loving Elizabeth, and summons wrathful ghosts to kill the group for revenge. However, a fiery dragon emerges from the ballroom fireplace to drag Ramsley down to Hell for eternal damnation. Ramsley attempts to take Jim with him, but Gracey saves Jim and leaves Ramsley to be dragged to his deserved punishment. Sara suddenly collapses, having been poisoned by Ramsley during the wedding, only for the spectral orb encountered by the children to appear and possess Sara, revealed to be Elizabeth’s ghost. Elizabeth and Gracey reunite, and Sara is revived. With the curse lifted, Gracey gives the Evers the mansion’s deed and departs to Heaven with Elizabeth, Emma, Ezra, and the other ghosts. The Evers drive across the Lake Ponchartrain Causeway for a proper vacation, accompanied by Madame Leota, and four singing busts strapped to the back of their car.

Background: The mansion scenes were filmed at Sable Ranch in Santa Clarita, California. The main building was constructed over a period of weeks while the cupola and chimneys on the top of the mansion were computer-generated. The rest of film was shot in New Orleans and surrounding areas. The paperboy in the opening scene is the nephew of the director, Rob Minkoff. The mansion’s exterior design is a mix of the attraction’s exteriors in both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

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An original script had the Groundskeeper as a supporting character played by Don Knotts, who later dropped out before shooting began The costume and special effects designers wanted the ghost characters to become “more dead” the farther they were from the mansion. While Ezra and Emma look human in the house, their leaving it causes them to become blue and transparent. The zombies in the mausoleum were described as the “deadest as they are farthest away”.

Cast: Eddie Murphy returns as Jim Evers, Wallace Shawn returns as Ezra, Jennifer Tilly returns as Madame Leota, 1 Cory Burton returns as the Voice of the Ghost Host. 2

Terence Stamp as Ramsley. His performance in the title role of Billy Budd, his film debut, earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a BAFTA nomination for Best Newcomer. His other major roles include butterfly collector Freddie Clegg in The Collector, archvillain General Zod in Superman and Superman II, tough guy Wilson in The Limey, Supreme Chancellor Valorum in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, Bernadette Bassinger in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Stick in Elektra, Pekwarsky in Wanted, Siegfried in Get Smart, General Ludwig Beck in Valkyrie, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Nathaniel Parker as Master Edward Gracey. From 2001 to 2007, Parker played the titular character in the long-running BBC1 crime series The Inspector Lynley Mysteries.

Marsha Thomason as Sara Evers/Elizabeth. She is best known for playing Nessa Holt Las Vegas, Naomi Dorrit on Lost, and FBI agent Diana Berrigan on White Collar. Dina Spybey as Emma. She is perhaps best known for her role as Tracy Montrose Blair on Six Feet Under. She was in Greg the Bunny, Remember WENN, Striptease, and Just Like Heaven.

Marc John Jefferies and Aree Davis play Michael and Megan Evers. The Dapper Dans play the The Singing Busts. 3 Deep Roy and Jeremy Howard play the Hitchhiking Ghosts.

Legacy: It was announced on July 22, 2010 at San Diego Comic-Con International that a new film based on Disney’s The Haunted Mansion was in development with Guillermo del Toro writing and producing.

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My take: So the Haunted Mansion is one of my all time favorite rides. Belle even has a print of the Doombuggy paton hanging in our living room. There is a bit of a novelty of picking out the various ghosts and images that appear throughout the film. Yet at the same time it feels like the film is designed to shoe horn in all of those elements.

Next Week: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas