Of all the rides or other attractions in any of the theme parks operated by the Walt Disney Company, if you were going to make a motion picture based on any of them - in this case, "you" are presumably either Chairman & CEO Michael Eisner or President & COO Bob Iger, and in either case you are a soul-dead vampire whose only interest is in flaying bare the corpse of all the company's intellectual properties, so "ick, that's a dumb idea, let's not do it" wasn't an option - I think it would surely be the case that the most obvious one to pick would be the Haunted Mansion found in nearly every Disney resort. It is, to begin with, one of the only rides that has a specific narrative with concrete interpersonal conflicts; it's one of the only rides with actual named characters, which at least gives you a place to start, and it fits snugly inside a well-worn genre, which gives you a place to go forward. And on top of that, it's easily one of the two or three most famous attractions at any of Disney's parks.

So back in the early 2000s, when Disney made exactly this beastly decision, it's not really a surprise at all that The Haunted Mansion was one of the three properties selected for expansion. Certainly it makes all the sense in the world compared to the other two experiments: The Country Bears, which was the first film to come out, in 2002, was based on a show with named characters who had identifiable personalities, but there's nothing even slightly resembling a narrative to that attraction, and the movie hardly tries to correct that problem. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the second film to come out, in July 2003, was based on one of the only rides as famous as (or, arguably, even more famous than) the Haunted Mansion, but it has a much thinner story, and pirate films were notorious box-office poison, had been for years, and that was the conventional wisdom right up until the movie became a critical success and popular smash hit.

I cannot recall, all these years later, whether the success of Pirates of the Caribbean did anything to raise anticipation for The Haunted Mansion (certainly The Country Bears, still the worst project based on a Disney theme park property, did no such thing), but it's not a film that would benefit from having even slightly high expectations. The film's fundamental problem is that it is trying to be two entirely different things, both of which could conceivably work as an adaptation of the ride, but surely not when they are pressed together. One of these, the one to which I am considerably more sympathetic, is a good-faith attempt to make a genially spooky movie for slightly brave young children, the ones who are interested in being a touch creeped out by moving skeletons and spiderwebs and ghostly organ music (Mark Mancina's score relies so heavily on Buddy Baker's ride soundtrack, particularly the plodding notes that open the attraction, that I almost don't know whether it's accurate to call it "Mark Mancina's score"), and the cadaverous sight of Terence Stamp as the scary butler Ramsley. The other one is to be a broad family comedy starring Eddie Murphy, who was in 2003 just about wrapping up the ugliest stretch of his career, shitting out one wretched high-concept comedy after another, like Dr. Dolittle 2 and The Adventures of Pluto Nash and Daddy Day Care. The Haunted Mansion isn't the worst film Murphy made between 2000 and 2003 - there is, in fact, some room to argue that it is the best - but it's certainly typical of all the things that made his films horribly unfunny slogs to sit through around this time: a trite family drama about how the dad protagonist needs to be better at attending to his kids, tediously obvious jokes that frequently substitute volume for cleverness, and Murphy himself not even slightly trying to hide how very bored he is with the material, and possibly his entire career.

Both of those conceivably start at the same root - a haunted house movie for kids that leavens its scares with humor - but actually fitting them into the same body is an extraordinarily tall order. This horrible task was dropped in the lap of director Rob Minkoff, whose previous film at Disney was 1994's The Lion King; why he was thus punished for providing the studio with one of the biggest hits in the history of international box office records, I cannot say, but attempting to impart some measure of coherence onto a doomed production hardly seems like a fair thing to have done to him. In between the two projects, he made Stuart Little and Stuart Little 2 for Columbia, and presumably that helped him get this job: a demonstrated ability to work with visual effects in a family comedy. But those films aren't good, and certainly they don't require the delicate command of tone that The Haunted Mansion is looking for.

So here we are, anyways, with 86 minutes of two different films spiraling around each other, looking for any way to connect. The Eddie Murphy family movie is considerably weaker: the plot, in which a go-getter real estate agent interrupts his family vacation to investigate the possibility of selling a massive old mansion, is a pack of clichΓ©s that were exhausted by the end of the '90s and the mid-film twist - his wife (Marsha Thomason), also a real estate agent, was given the lead because the ghostly owner of the house (Nathaniel Parker) thinks she's the reincarnation of his lover - is an even older clichΓ©. Of course, the story is just a hook for the comedy, which comes in basically two forms: Murphy talking fast, and blandly silly bits done by purposefully unscary ghosts. The latter is mostly harmless, but the former can be quite miserable when it's not going perfectly: Murphy's quickwitted motormouth routine had gone stale well before 2003, or perhaps it's just that Murphy had gotten tired of it, but either way it's the same result. Rather than offering us the pleasures of feeling like we're on the side of the smartest wiseass in the room, Murphy basically just shouts a lot. We get an early sample of how deeply horrible this can go when Jim Evers - the Murphy character - is counseling his 10-year-old son (Marc John Jeffries) about not being afraid of spiders. "Whack it!" shouts Murphy. "I don't want to whack it!" shouts Jeffries back. This goes on for easily half a minute, and speaks to a very dark corner of screenwriter David Berenbaum's mind.

This all descends into the expected sentimental goo, as Jim learns that he has to attend more to his family and help his children grow into good adults rather than just bellow at them; there's also a second dose of sentiment, as the ghost of Master Gracey, the mansion's owner, has to stop lingering over his great losses and move into the next world, so the mansion stops being so gosh-darn haunted. It's all very tepid, sentimental in such a reflexive, unimaginative way that it doesn't even feel like the film cares if we believe in its clichΓ©s, it's just running through them because it understands that being a children's "horror" film in the 21st Century requires a massive dose of warm fuzzies to help make sure we don't leave feeling even the slightest hint of a negative emotion.

Which is too bad twice over: first, because the silliness built into the haunted house shenanigans were already enough to keep it kid friendly, and second, because those shenanigans are actually pretty decent. It's a little irritating how much effort the film takes to cram in direct references to the ride, something it rarely does artfully, but when it's just sinking into the over-the-top dusty gloom of the sets and the reasonably successful visual effects, it works as nice, atmospheric lark. The silliness comes mostly in the form of Wallace Shawn and Dina Waters as bumbling ghost servants, and from Jennifer Tilly as the green, glowing head of deceased fortune teller Madame Leota; between the three of them, they honor the film's needs as a haunted house genre movie while having fun with it, and Tilly in particular is unusually good at handling some of the groaner jokes that Berenbaum's script throws her way. They also make a good counterpoint to Stamp, whose grave seriousness is its own kind of joke about the material, and who is very obviously the highlight of the film; he's exactly the right amount of otherworldy and threatening without ever actually tipping the film away from its target audience. Rebuild a film around him, and we might even have something, a good mixture of child-sized scares and enough campy knowingness to keep the film from getting too serious. I mean, there should be a good Haunted Mansion movie; it's also a good mixture of child-sized scares and enough campy knowingness, and its iconography is unmistakable. But forcing it to be a banal family comedy with tacky, canned "uplift" was a pretty good way to prevent that from happening. At least it's not as bad as The Country Bears - not as horrifying, either.