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What was the original screenplay for Disney's "Haunted Mansion" movie like?

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What was the original screenplay for Disney's "Haunted Mansion" movie like?

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Hey gang! Jim Hill here. You know, one of the things that I really love about the Internet is that -- every so often -- something truly wonderful pops up in your e-mail. Three weeks ago, it was all that "Project Gemini" stuff. And just this past weekend, I received a wonderful gift from a MrTheFrog. It seems that a friend of his works in the industry. Which is how MrTheFrog managed to get ahold of a copy of the script of Walt Disney Pictures' much anticipated November 2003 release, "The Haunted Mansion." Which he then -- quite kindly, I might add -- offered to describe this screenplay in great detail for JHM readers.

I know that film fans have expressed much concern about this project. The Disneyana community seems particularly concerned about Disney's decision to cast Eddie ("The Adventures of Pluto Nash") Murphy as the lead in this picture. And ... let's be honest here ... that somewhat silly, rather cheesy looking "Haunted Mansion" teaser trailer that the Mouse released to theaters last month didn't exactly help the situation.

Still, it's hard to really judge a motion picture based on the few tidbits that leak out while the project's still in production. That's why MrTheFrog's upcoming script description is such a gift. For the first time anywhere, you're going to get to read a really detailed description of the characters you'll encounter in this movie. Plus you'll get definitive information about what parts of the much beloved theme park attraction turn up in the "Haunted Mansion" movie.

A word of caution: there are spoilers ahead! If -- come November -- you really want to walk into your local multiplex without knowing in advance every twist and turn of this film's plot (Well, maybe not every twist. Because he really doesn't want to ruin the entire "Haunted Mansion" movie for everyone, MrTheFrog has held back a few crucial plot points. For which we should be grateful ... I guess), now might be a good time to stop reading this particular column.

Also, the copy of the "Haunted Mansion" screenplay that MrTheFrog is reviewing today is a fairly early draft. One from 'way back in January of 2002. Given that production didn't actually begin on this picture 'til January 7, 2003, that means that the Mouse (not to mention "Haunted Mansion" director Rob Minkoff) had plenty of time to massage this script.

Which may not have actually been a good thing. Why? Because as you read this review, you'll find that MrTheFrog really liked the original version of the "Haunted Mansion" screenplay. He goes out of his way to praise David Berenbaum's efforts to stay true to the film's source material (I.E. the "Haunted Mansion" theme park attraction). How -- by building on real pieces of the ride's mythology (MrTheFrog repeatedly has kind words for all the research that Mr. Berenbaum put into this project) -- David managed to produce a very entertaining screenplay. A solid script that could serve as a pretty good blueprint for a fairly entertaining film.

But then ... well, this is where MrTheFrog's upcoming column gets kind of depressing. You see, this is the section where he addresses all the stories that he's heard to date about the version of Disney's "Haunted Mansion" movie that's being shot right now. And that -- if we're to go by Jennifer Tilly's recent comments to "TV Guide" -- it's pretty obvious that Mr. Berenbaum's carefully researched, respectful-of-the-original-attraction screenplay has been joked up and hoked up.

So I guess what I'm saying is that the script review that follows is kind of a mixed bag. You'll hear all about this truly cool "Haunted Mansion" screenplay that Disney evidently lost confidence in. Which is why (I guess) the studio felt it was necessary to punch this script up by adding kooky krazy touches like a mouthy Madam Leota who gets carried around like a bowling ball.

Hearing about stuff like this (as well as Tilly's claim that the Imagineers are making plans to change the classic "Haunted Mansion" theme park attractions so that it better reflects the forthcoming film) doesn't exactly fill my heart with joy. But then I remember that WDFA vets like Rob Minkoff and Don Hahn are riding herd on this project. So I hold out hope that all these "improvements" may actually improve the picture.

Anyway ... if you're a "foolish mortal" and want to know quite a bit about Disney's "Haunted Mansion" movie months before you head out to the multiplex, read on. If you're prefer to be surprised when you stop by your local cinema in November, stop reading now.

Okay. You can't say that I didn't warn you ...


 

Hi everyone, I'm a longtime reader of Jim Hill's work, and about six months ago I moved out to L.A. to work. A few days ago, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of the script for "Disney's The Haunted Mansion." It's an early version, dated January 11, 2002. I'll get to the description in a second, but first, let me start off by saying that I had much fear about this project for a number of reasons...

1. "The Country Bears": Disney's "re-imagining" of the classic theme park characters left a lot to be desired. It left out some of the most popular bears, instead deciding to tell the story of some of the background characters. Big mistake. (BTW, a little known fact: Did you know that Big Al sang a version of the ever popular "Blood on the Saddle" as an opening act for the Bears' big finale? Supposedly it was filmed, but didn't make it into the final cut.) Though the bears themselves were beautifully created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, all the technology in the world wasn't gonna save this movie. A badly written script is a badly written script.

2. Disney's writers-in-residence program: It's this program that spawned "The Country Bears", and where David Berenbaum wrote "The Haunted Mansion" script. From what I understand, the writers are paid a salary to come up with scripts based on the Disney attractions. I've been told, that since they already work for the mouse and are receiving a salary, that the company doesn't have to buy the scripts from them, and as a result get off dirt cheap. If you ask me, that's not much motivation to rack your brain, trying to turn a 50 year old ride into a cohesive story.

3. Eddie Murphy: The moment I heard that he was starring in this film, I considered it dead in the water. Not that he's a bad actor. He's actually one of my favorite actor/comedians out there. But was he really an appropriate star for a film based on Disneyland's most popular attraction?

4. Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota: This really scared me, and not in a good way ... I mean come on.

Anyway, I sat down to read this early version of the script expecting to be scared, horrified, even terrified by how they were going to destroy a classic. You'll be happy to know that I was very pleasantly surprised.

Here's the set-up:

The film begins in the New Orleans town of "Liberty". In a pristine old mansion, a soon-to-be bride, sits in her room, penning a letter to her one true love. Her dress sits on the bed beside her. As she finishes, she wipes away the tears, rises, sprinkles some powder into a glass of wine, and drinks from it. A moment later, the nobleman she was to marry, rushes into the room to find her dead on the floor. Jump ahead to the present.

Eddie Murphy plays Jim Evers, a workaholic attorney. Obsessed with getting ahead, he has very little time for his wife Sara, or his two children Megan and Michael. He is in line for a huge promotion, but in order to seal the deal, he has to meet with the head of his company. And one thing the big boss is very fond of is the idea of "family." So in the interest of making a good impression, Jim drags his family, kicking and screaming, to meet him, in his big house, behind a big iron gate, on top of a big hill. And what is his name? Master Edward Gracey.

Once inside, the members of the Evers family are trapped in the house, and separated from one another. Through a series of events Jim is lead to a séance room where he meets Madame Leota, a cryptic fortune teller whose head is inside a crystal ball, played by Jennifer Tilly. She tells him the tragic tale of the bride, and explains to him that he and his family are doomed to forever join the 999 happy haunts, unless they can set the bride free by the 13th hour.

Along the way, they meet an interesting (and familiar) cast of characters, including:

- An old caretaker (played by Don Knotts), and his skin-n-bones dog.
- Phineas Pock: a plump ghost with a top hat
- Ezra: a tall thin skeletal ghost with a long coat and derby
- Gus: a short ghost with a long bushy beard, and a ball and chain around his leg.
- And of course, Master Gracey.

The writer David Berenbaum did a wonderful job with this story, leaving no stone unturned. From the floating candelabra, to the portraits with the wandering eyes, this is a writer who did his homework, and he has an absolute masterpiece to show for it. This is THE definitive Haunted Mansion movie. I've been a Disney fan for 28 years now, as well as a former cast member. And I've been to both WDW and Disneyland hundreds of times, so needless to say, I'm very critical. But all that kept running through my head as I read this was "Wow. WOW!" As it stands now, it's completely 100% faithful to the ride. If this is done right, it could possibly be the best live-action Disney film since Walt's time. I kid you not. This has the potential to be a huge, HUGE hit for them.

I think what I liked so much is, this is not a kiddy movie. There are lots of parts that are very intense, and disturbing. I have a hard time believing they'll get a PG rating out of it (probably PG-13). Eddie Murphy is perfectly cast in this role. His comic relief is much needed for the dark grim story that they tell. And Don Knotts ... need I say more? Now Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota ... well, if done like the script, she'll have a relatively small, but important role. And she'll be fine, as long as she doesn't joke it up ...

... which leads us to the second part of this story. If you remember, back at the beginning of this article, I stated that the script I read, is dated January 11, 2002. That's right, 2002, over a year ago. And as expected some things are going to change. How much will change? I don't know. But let's look at a few quotes from some people involved with the film:

In a recent TV Guide article, Jennifer Tilly had the following to say: "When you go into the ride [at Disney], there's a gypsy fortune teller's head in a crystal ball, saying, 'Go back, Go back!' You know, Madame Leota. That's gonna be me! I'm Eddie Murphy's sidekick in the movie. He carries my head around, and I get bossy with him. I have lots of hair, I'm a smart ass, and I'm very cryptic. I know all, I see all ... if the movie's really successful, Disney's gonna revamp the ride and I'll be the head in the ball at the beginning of it! They're gonna totally update it."

Well I can tell you that in the version I read, she is far from a sidekick. At no time does she get "bossy," or is she a "smart ass," and not once does Eddie carry her head around with him. His son does for one scene, but never Eddie. So if this is true, then some things have changed. They may have toned things down to make it more family friendly.

In another interview, Director Rob Minkoff said "It will actually have more of an inflection on the ride than the ride will have an inflection on the movie" and later added "There will be special effects but no character animation so there will be a lot of ghost effects but no character ghosts, not like Casper. I think there was some thought originally that there might be."

Now this kinda scares me simply because, the script I read, and the ride are so similar that it would make his first statement absolutely false ... unless a lot has been changed. And regarding the "no character ghosts", I'm not quite sure how to take that. My assumption is that he means the ghosts will be played by humans with enhanced make-up and special effects, rather than being animated. Though looking at the Internet Movie Database, I only see "Little Ghost" listed (possibly Gus), as well as "Queen Ghost". Which brings up another question: Who the heck is 'Queen Ghost'? There was no Queen Ghost in the script. Is it a fancy name for the ghost of the bride? Is it a new character completely?

And why do all the descriptions of the film say: "When a workaholic visits a haunted house with his family during a job interview, he meets a ghost that teaches him a lesson about the importance of the family that he has neglected." The key word there is "a ghost". There was no definitive ghost in this script. There were many, each with their own role to play. But there was not one, that was really any more special than the other, unless they're talking about Madame Leota. So, again, characters may have been cut, things may have changed.

But on a more positive note, Marsha Thomason, who plays Eddie's wife, said in a February 2003 interview "We've got the singing heads. We've got the whole mausoleum. We've got Madame Leota. Jennifer Tilly is playing Madame Leota. There's a whole lot of the Disney ride in the movie. It's fab!"

So who knows? The version I read didn't have the singing busts, but they'd be a welcome addition. And according to her, it's a lot like the ride. So I guess the only thing we could do is wait until November when it's released. But in the meantime, let me leave you with this small excerpt from the script. The set-up is Eddie Murphy's character, Jim Evers, is in an octagonal room, admiring the paintings on the wall:

"Jim walks to leave, but can't find the door. He turns confused ... Jim looks around in confusion. Jim turns to the window ... or where the window used to be. No window. He turns to leave, but now there's no door. He looks around, but there's definitely no door. No windows and no doors--"

Indeed.

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