Top Ten Most Gruesome Disney Villain Deaths

One thing that has been the hallmark of the success of Disney Animation are the characters.  Over their 100 years, the studio has grown it’s roster to include hundreds of classic characters that have found their place in the hearts of generations of fans, from Mickey Mouse onward.  And while there are groupings of characters that standout more than others, I think that the most surprising fanbase to have popped up over the years has been the ones for the Disney Villains.  The Villains sometimes have even been the main attraction, remembered far more than the rest of the films they inhabit, and that’s perhaps because just by their very nature they are out-sized personalities that command every moment they are on screen.  In addition to being scene-stealing presences in their movies, the Disney Villains also can become more legendary by just how big of an exit they are given.  Because Disney has catered to a family friendly audience for most of it’s existence, they often shy away from violent imagery, and that’s largely the reason why they rarely enact violent ends for their villains.  Most of the time the villain receives their comeuppance through karmic retribution or ending up in prison for their crimes.  But, there are villains whose evil deeds are so great that a violent end does justify itself.  And in some cases, Disney says farewell to their villains in a surprisingly dark and graphic way; by their standards anyway.  With Halloween around the corner, and continuing on my look at Disney during their 100th anniversary, I decided to list what I think are the most gruesome villain death scenes from Disney movies.  I’m excluding their entirely live action films, so no Star Wars or Marvel since they could fill their own lists, but I will include villain deaths from films that have both live action and animation, as well as include films from Pixar Animation as well.  So, here are my picks for the Top Ten Most Gruesome Disney Villain Deaths.




Certainly the “Mistress of All Evil” would have a death scene that was iconic in it’s own way.  The reason I don’t have her higher is because the thing that ultimately dooms her is nothing extraordinary with regard to fantasy storytelling.  The valiant Prince Phillip does exactly what any hero in a fairy tale does; he saves the kingdom by slaying a dragon.  Perhaps what makes the scene so iconic is not the kill shot, as much of a bullseye as it is, but the whole scene that leads up to it.  Maleficent calls upon all of her magical tricks to prevent Phillip from breaking her curse on the kingdom, in a tour de force sequence that shows Disney at it’s absolute best.  However, it is when she transforms into a dragon that the scene reaches another level.  You really feels the odds stacked up against the hero, with the villain seeming to be unstoppable.  And that’s what makes the defeat of Maleficent all the more satisfying by the end, because it all feels like a great evil has been vanquished.  The only downside is that the actual plunge of the sword into Maleficent’s heart comes at us a tad bit anti-climatic, though it is significant in the fact that we see a rare instance of on-screen spilled blood in a Walt era Disney movie.  It is still a strong moment in the movie, with Maleficent’s pained scream, even in her dragon form, feeling like the roar of an otherworldly demon.  Of course, even as the life goes out of her, Maleficent still attempts one final kill as she snaps at Phillip one final time before falling to the ground.  It’s not the most creative way for a Disney villain to go out, but the sequence it’s a part of is still an all-time masterwork of animation, and that certainly earns a place for it on this list.


SCAR from THE LION KING (1994)


Scar is an interesting case of a villain who succumbed to the consequences of his own misdeeds.  His whole evil scheme was to take power through the regicide of his brother the king and his nephew.  To do so, he made a pact with the hyenas, giving them free reign over the Pridelands, his kingdom, and as a result he disrupted the food chain (or Circle of Life) as they call it that made the kingdom prosper and drove it into ruin.  There’s a Arthurian element to this story, where the return of the good king brings prosperity to the land once the bad king is driven out, and the makers of The Lion King borrow greatly from those kinds of legendary tales, as well as quite a bit of Shakespeare.  Certainly the thing that makes Scar such a great villain to hate is his lack of morals.  He is someone who will do anything to gain power, and that’s what makes his inevitable downfall all the more satisfying.  He is also a petty character as well, willing to throw anything in his way in order to survive.  That’s ultimately what leads to his downfall.  His nephew Simba easily overpowers him to reclaim his throne, but to buy himself an out after being cornered, Scar claims to Simba that he only acted the way he did because of the hyenas, saying it was their idea.  Simba of course doesn’t buy it, but he grants Scar mercy by condemning him to exile.  Scar, ever the petty one, attacks Simba when his defense is down, but ultimately he is no match and Simba sends him off the summit of Pride Rock in a steep fall.  Scar survives, but he finds himself surrounded by his hyena minions, who just happened to overhear him throwing them under the bus.  The hyenas have also been starving because of the shortage of food under Scar’s reign.  So, we see Scar’s evil schemes come full circle as he ultimately is undone by the very thing he empowered.  Of course Disney spares us the graphic details, playing out Scar’s end through shadows, but it’s obvious to us the grisly end that Scar meets, and it’s one that is significantly satisfying for such a weaselly manipulator who only cared about himself.


HOPPER from A BUG’S LIFE (1998)


Hopper was an early Pixar movie villain that proved to be surprisingly brutal and dark for a family film.  The leader of a gang of grasshoppers who bully a colony of ants is not above using violent ends to not just get his way, but to also make his point.  One particularly dark moment involves Hopper crushing two of his minions to death under a mountain of food after they challenge his reasoning for demanding tribute from the ant colony.  It also is interesting to note that Hopper is the only Pixar villain voiced by a real life monster named Kevin Spacey.  Which makes it all the more satisfying that Hopper is one of the few Pixar villains who is done in by the end of the movie.  But, of course, the creative minds at Pixar are not going to kill off their dark and sinister bad guy in any ordinary way.  One of the few weaknesses that Hopper has as a character is his crippling fear of birds, which is something that the resourceful hero of the ants, Flik, takes advantage of.  He convinces the colony to build a replica bird as a defense against the grasshoppers, and while it works initially, Hopper eventually gets wise to the artifice.  However, this misconception that the ants have built a bunch of fake birds ends up leading to Hopper’s downfall, because during the final climax of the movie, Flik leads Hopper to a real birds nest and the villain doesn’t realize he’s been tricked until it’s too late.  Hopper’s demise is both hilarious in execution as well as a bit terrifying.  We know he’s about to be eaten alive, horrific as it sounds, but the ones doing the devouring are the cutest little baby chicks Pixar has ever animated; a nice little spin that the animators made to give it that extra bit of satisfying comeuppance.  It’s that mix of cute baby animals and Hopper’s helpless screams of terror put together that makes this villain death scene so memorable, and a brilliant way to make a gruesome death feel consequential but not out of place in a colorful movie like A Bug’s Life.




There’s a complaint that Disney tends to kill most of their villains off in the same way, which is to have them fall from a great height, making it a bit of a cliché.  The truth is that even though it does show up multiple times in Disney animation, it is an overall effective way to have the villain meet their end in a G-rated film; it’s bloodless and it doesn’t involve the heroes actively dealing a killing blow to the villain, thereby maintaining their purity of character.  A lot of Disney villains meet their end this way; Gaston, Professor Ratigan, Mother Gothel.  But it is perhaps Judge Claude Frollo’s fall from a high place that stands as the most memorable.  Not only is he falling from the balcony of the Notre Dame cathedral, but he is plunged head first while grabbing onto a very heavy stone gargoyle sculpture towards the square down below, which we know from earlier in the film has been covered in a layer of molten iron that the hero Quasimodo poured down to ward off invaders.  You’ve got to believe that it was not a pleasant end for Frollo.  Frollo is far and away one of the most vividly portrayed evil characters in any Disney movie.  His pious hypocrisy makes him an especially hateable presence in the film, and the fact that he’s a bit of a sadist is another layer to his villainy that makes him all the more potent.  That’s why his death scene has this satisfying and ironic karmic sense to it.  He believes he’s got the heroes, Quasimodo and the gypsy Esmeralda, cornered and he triumphantly holds his sword up high, quoting scripture by saying, “He shall smite the wicked and plunge them into the fiery pit.”  But, of course fate has other plans, as Frollo’s footing gives way.  Amping up the symbolism of the moment, the filmmakers had the gargoyle that Frollo is clinging to life to transform into a terrifying hell beast, indicating where Frollo is headed to in the next life.  It’s operatic and perhaps a little too heavy-handed, but still a satisfyingly gruesome end to one of Disney’s most evil human monsters.




You wouldn’t think that Disney would take out their villain in a violent way during it’s early years, let alone in their first feature film ever, and yet they did just that.  Snow White and the Seven Dwarves pushed the boundaries of what could be done with the animated medium, and it’s interesting that Disney did not hold back when it came to creating a terrifying presence in their villainous Evil Queen.  Everything about the character is dark and foreboding, even during her regal scenes in her castle.  Once she transforms into her peddler woman form, she is the stuff of nightmares, with her gnarled fingers and buggy eyes.  As sweet and light as the rest of the film is, the Queen casts a dark shadow whenever she appears.  It’s to Walt Disney and his team’s credit that they remained true to the dark nature of the character, and it’s likely why they also chose to make her comeuppance in the story all the grander once it comes.  The moment Snow White bites the poison apple, it’s almost like nature itself has come apart, as the Queen’s triumphant laughter is punctuated by the sudden flash of a raging storm.  As she makes her way back to her castle, she finds that the Seven Dwarves are hunting her down.  She escapes them by climbing up a mountain slope, only to get cornered on a cliffside.  A precariously balanced boulder nearby gives her one final weapon to stop the Dwarves, and she tries to push it down their way, hoping to crush them.  In a real deus ex machina moment, her evil intent is stopped by a lightning strike right at her feet.  It crumbles her ledge away, causing her to fall to her death (it all started here).  To make the death even more gruesome, the boulder she intended to crush the dwarves with ends up toppling in her direction after she falls off screen with a final helpless scream.  It is amazing that even in their first animated film they managed to make their climax feel this monumental, and the Evil Queen’s over-the-top death scene really set the bar high for Disney afterwards.  It almost seemed like they were afraid to go as big as they did afterwards, because another Disney villain wouldn’t die on screen until Maleficent 22 year later.  Nevertheless, it is one that still remains memorable over 80 years later and is still a somewhat shocking moment for a Disney movie given when it was made.




Keeping in the same tradition of Hopper from A Bug’s Life, the main adversary of the Incredibles family also has a death scene that is both gruesome and hilarious at the same time.  Earlier in the film, the Incredibles’ go-to outfit designer Edna Mode makes it clear that she has one primary rule: No Capes!!  The reason for this is because though capes are an aesthetically pleasing and traditional part of a superhero’s overall presentation, it can also become a hazard depending on the situation.  The movie demonstrates this with a hilarious montage of different super heroes over the years who have had their cape get snagged on something or causes their wearers to get pulled into harm like they were lassoed in by a rope.  The Incredibles creator Brad Bird (who also voiced Edna Mode) brilliantly pays off this gag late in the film’s climax with the villain Syndrome being killed off by what else, his cape.  The great thing about this pay off is how sneakily Brad Bird brings it back into the movie.  Syndrome’s cape is not exactly a prominent feature of his costume, so we forget it’s there most of the time.  But once Syndrome is thwarted after Mr. Incredible throws his car at the villain’s hover plane, he is thrown back towards one of the plane’s jet turbines, and all of a sudden we are acutely aware of the cape.  It’s a hilarious way to finish off this villain, who certainly has earned this karmic death after the years of slaughtering super heroes to build better weaponry, but also at the same time when you think about it, it is also horrific in it’s own way.  What happens to the human body when it gets sucked into a turbine engine is pretty gruesome.  The movie spares us the blood and horror of it, instead showing the fireball aftermath, but we can still imagine what happened.  Given the gruesome nature of it, as well as the perfect punchline to a running joke throughout the movie, this is certainly the best villain death to have come from Pixar Animation.


CLAYTON from TARZAN (1999)


Tarzan is definitely one of Disney’s more action oriented films, so more on screen violence is to be expected.  This also leads to one of the more explicitly violent villain deaths in all of Disney Animation.  Clayton is not a particularly original villain.  His kind of trigger happy gentleman explorer type is just basic stock villainy for a lot of films similar to this one, both in animation and live action.  He still works as formidable foe for Tarzan in the movie, and is give a wonderfully boisterous vocal performance by legendary British character actor Brian Blessed.  But during the film’s climatic confrontation, Disney shockingly pushes the limit for what they can get away with in a G-rated film with the way Clayton meets his demise. He chases Tarzan into the treetops with his shotgun fully loaded.  Tarzan and him skirmish for a bit, before Tarzan manages to disarm him.  Tarzan could end the fight by pulling the trigger, but he proves he’s the bigger man by not sinking to Clayton’s brutal level and he smashes the gun to pieces.  Clayton then resorts to using his machete to lunge with murderous intent at Tarzan.  The fight ends up culminating in a tangle of vines, which Tarzan has a natural advantage in.  With his knowledge of the natural barrier that the vines provide, he manages to entangle his foe in the foliage.  But, the still bloodthirsty Clayton tries to hack his way out, not knowing that one of the vines has roped around his neck.  Tarzan tries to intervene, but Clayton cuts one vine to many and begins to fall.   After a quick freefall, we see the last vine attached to Clayton go taut.  We don’t see explicitly what happened, but a quick lightning flash shows the shadow of Clayton’s lifeless dangling body hanging off screen.  This is one moment where Disney gets the closest to not leaving anything to the imagination, and it is a shockingly brutal end for the villain.  It fits with the tone of Tarzan as a whole, which is among the more mature Disney animated movies, but even still compared to all the other Disney villain deaths, the fact that it is so grounded in reality makes the moment feel all the more shocking overall.




One of the most memorable Disney Villain divas should absolutely have a death scene as over-the-top as their personality.  Ursula the Sea Witch gets hers through one of the craziest turn of events seen in any Disney film ever.  After gaining her rival King Triton’s crown and trident, Ursula commands enormous power over the ocean.  She enacts her malice by growing to giant size and creating a chaotic storm.  Ariel the mermaid and the love of her life Prince Eric get swept into the maelstrom of Ursula’s creation, but the swirling water also dredges up ship wrecks from the ocean floor.  Eric manages to climb aboard one of these wrecks that has reached the surface and using his seafaring skills, he manages to steer it in Ursula’s direction.  Ursula is distracted by her focus on killing Ariel, and doesn’t see the ship making it’s way toward her, with the decayed bow having now become a nice pointy end.  She only notices a half second before and the sharpened bow cuts right into her.  The colossal Ursula has been completely impaled from front to back, and she quickly melts away as the life leaves her, leaving a smoky pool behind on the water’s surface.  It’s been told by the filmmakers that Ursula’s confrontation with Ariel and Eric was more low key in early versions of the story, and it was actually Disney Animation chief at the time, Jeffrey Katzenberg, who told them to make the climax a lot bigger, saying in his words, “I need it to be more Die Hard.”  And I guess they took it literally, because they made the climax bigger by making Ursula bigger.  But, given the enormity of her personality to begin with, this climax just fits the character a lot better.  In a strange way, this seems like the way Ursula would have wanted to go out; in spectacular fashion.  And kudos on Disney for once actually not taking the safe route and minimizing the gory details.  It’s a violent end, but one that is appropriate for this kind of classic villain.




Of all of the films made by Disney Animation, the darkest by design was their fantasy epic The Black Cauldron.  Made at a time when Disney was desperately trying to re-invent themselves in what was known as their Dark Age, The Black Cauldron was a far more violent and adult-oriented movie.  It was also the first time Disney received a PG Rating.  The shift in tone didn’t work out, as the movie was a financial flop that almost killed the animation department at the studio.  But, there have been elements about the movie that have helped it to gain a cult fanbase over the years.  One of them is the very memorable villain, The Horned King.  The Skeletal faced adversary is far and away one of the most terrifying characters to ever appear in a Disney animated film, or any animated film for that matter.  And of course, with a villain this terrifying and with so many evil deeds done in his wake, the comeuppance that he faces in the climax has to be as fittingly as gruesome as he is.  Given that The Black Cauldron was made in a moment in time when Disney felt unencumbered by the need to keep things family friendly, they decided that the Horned King’s death had to be a shocking one, and boy did they deliver.  Once the spell he has casted on the Cauldron begins to reverse itself, all of the magic begins to return back to the cauldron in a powerful black hole like vortex.  The Horned King tries to evade the pull of the Cauldron, but it overpowers him.  He makes one final desperate cling to life at the Cauldron’s rim, but the force begins to peel the skin off of the King’s bones.  The Horned King is violently torn apart piece by piece as the Cauldron consumes his essence and he is finally obliterated in one final violent explosion.  I don’t think you’ll find a more visibly gruesome villain death in any other animated Disney movie.  The Black Cauldron wasn’t afraid to take it’s story into violent places and show it all on screen, and that was evident by the visually explicit way that the Horned King meets his end.




Sure this is not a canonical Disney Animated movie, but the Disney Animation studio did work on this and Judge Doom is technically a cartoon character, so that makes this a Disney Villain death.  And the reason why he has managed to top this list is because I don’t think any other Disney Villain has had their life ended in a more gruesome and violent way than how Judge Doom meets his end.  The main villain of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is definitely one of the most terrifying characters ever put on screen (played brilliantly by Christopher Lloyd) and that’s true even before we see his final form.  At one point with his climatic battle with the heroic Eddie Valiant, Doom appears to have met his end under the crushing power of a cement roller.  But, we soon learn that he was a cartoon the whole time, wearing a rubber mask disguise to appear human.  When he regains his shape, we see the terrifying red eyes now poking through the mask, creating a sight that drove terror into this writer as a child every time.  But, much like other villains on this list, Judge Doom falls victim to his own hubris, and is killed off by his own invention.  Doom had created a liquid mixture of Turpentine, Acetone and Benzine (all paint removers) to melt cartoon characters out of existence.  His master plan was to destroy all of Toontown (home of all the cartoon characters) with the nasty mixture, but Valiant manages to turn the tables of the maniacal judge and causes a spill of the substance to shoot out in Doom’s direction.  Judge Doom slowly melts down into the green colored pool, all the while screaming “I’m melting” in a nod to the Wicked Witch’s similar fate.  You really get the sense that Judge Doom went out painfully in the end, and it’s fitting given the sadistic way that he put a cute little cartoon shoe through the same fate earlier in the film.  Even as much as he deserved what came to him, there is this incredible sense of grimness in seeing a character just melt away into nothing, especially knowing just how painful each second of it would have been.  That’s why Judge Doom’s death scene is the darkest and most gruesome that Disney has ever put on screen.

Disney certainly doesn’t go dark and violent often, but as we’ve seen in some of the cases above, that when they do they make it memorably visceral and even sometimes graphic.  Of course, some of the most memorably evil baddies get grandiose exits, like Maleficent and Ursula.  But, at times Disney may even throw in a shockingly violent end to even a lesser villain.  The example of Clayton in Tarzan shows how they’re not afraid to give a vividly violent death to a more grounded character who left a lesser impact.  And there are of course the examples of the Horned King and Judge Doom, where Disney made use of the added freedom of a PG rating to show a bit more violence on screen.  Whatever the case, there definitely are rules that Disney still sticks with when it comes to how they give their villains a comeuppance that either leaves them dead or not.  For one thing, I notice that when a villain dies in a Disney movie, it’s mainly because they had already taken a life beforehand, and ending up dead themselves is just karmic retribution.  That’s definitely the case with on screen murders committed, like with Judge Doom, Scar, Frollo, Hopper, Clayton and the Evil Queen, or those implied off screen like with Maleficent, Ursula, the Horned King, and Syndrome.  Another rule that Disney applies is that their heroes can’t kill their villains unless it is a last act necessity.  That’s why so many villains meet their end through their own hubristic mistakes in Disney films, hence why a fall from a high place is so commonly used.  It’s always interesting to see Disney take more creative routes in dealing with their villainous characters, even when it means showing them mercy in the end.  Not every villain needs to meet a terrible fate, and as much as people like to see a big violent end for these characters, the movie doesn’t need it always to have a satisfying conclusion to a story.  For this list, it does offer up some interesting insights into how a company like Disney tends to handle darker moments within their movies, and it shows that they can go surprisingly hard when it comes to giving their Villains a violent and gruesome death.  They were even capable of doing so even in Walt’s time, with the Evil Queen’s three fold comeuppance in Snow White.  For this spooky time of year, I hope this was an interesting look into the different times Disney took a risk and gave their Villains a really hardcore exit out of their movies; even to some very shocking levels.

Killers of the Flower Moon – Review

Few filmmakers have managed to achieve the kind of careers heights that Martin Scorsese has.  Now in his seventh decade of filmmaking, Scorsese remarkably is not slowing down one bit.  In fact, he has found new avenues of getting his visions made.  While some of his peers like Spielberg, Tarantino, and Nolan have scoffed at the streaming market, Scorsese has embraced streaming, with his last two films getting financing from Netflix and Apple respectively.  Some purists may see this as selling out, especially for a filmmaker like Marty who has been a strong champion for cinema and for film preservation.  But, at the same time, Scorsese recognizes that getting the money to produce the kinds of movies that he wants to make is something that he can’t reliably count on the traditional movie studios for.  Martin has notably been critical of the ways that the film studios have abandoned adult themed movies in favor of comic book “rollercoaster rides” as he calls them; basically creatively bankrupt movies solely meant to please the masses rather than challenge them.  So, with studios turning away from the movies that he prefers to make, it doesn’t seem that irrational for him to look to streaming as an alternative, since they have been more friendly to auteur driven cinema.  Scorsese’s big move to streaming was marked with his new crime themed epic The Irishman (2019), which marked a welcome return to the mobster movies that put him on the map from the beginning.  In many ways, it acted as a capper to an unofficial trilogy of mafia movies, reuniting Scorsese with his favorite leading man, Robert DeNiro, but containing many of the same familiar themes and faces of his past films like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995).  Structurally, The Irishman also had the same fourth wall breaks and inner monologues of the those two movies, which is why so many believed together they were a sort of trilogy.  The one thing The Irishman didn’t have in common with the others is that it never had a wide theatrical release; it solely streamed exclusively on Netflix.  So, though Scorsese was given the budget and the creative freedom to make the movie he wanted, he unfortunately had to compromise on the film’s exhibition.

The situation is different with his new film, however, which is also going to be exclusive for a streaming platform, but only after a theatrical run.  Apple Studios, the company behind the new Scorsese film, Killers of the Flower Moon (2023), is approaching the streaming business much differently than Netflix is.  While Netflix has refrained from wide theatrical engagements it’s whole history, with the intent of driving traffic to their platform, Apple has decided that giving their movies a run in theaters works better to boost the profile of their projects.  Some of their films have gone straight to streaming, but others like their Oscar-winner CODA (2021) have made it to theaters on a much wider scale than Netflix gives their own.  This year in particular, Apple is very much flexing their cinematic muscle with two new big epic features from two legendary filmmakers, the aforementioned Scorsese’s Killer of the Flower Moon, and Napoleon (2023) from Ridley Scott.  Apple still doesn’t have a distribution wing for their studio, so they are partnering up on these big budget epics with other studios (Paramount and Sony respectively) to share the financial burden.  Still, Apple is a deep pocketed company with near endless resources, and that’s probably why Scorsese wanted to work with them.  They want to give their brand a prestige reputation, and he’s got the visionary mind to make that happen.  So, why Killers of the Flower Moon.  The 2017 best-selling true crime novel from David Grann is very much a different kind of source material than what Scorsese usually lends his filmmaking style to.  But in many other ways, it is also the kind of story that he is perfectly matched for.  Also, it is far and away one of the most ambitious films he has ever undertaken, as the boundless riches of Apple Studios has put far fewer creative barriers in his way.  The only question is, where does Killers of the Flower Moon rank in the unparalleled filmography of Martin Scorsese’s half-century long career.

Killers of the Flower Moon tells the story of the Osage Nation murders that occurred in the 1920’s.  This moment in time is noteworthy, because it was one of the first cases ever investigated by the newly formed FBI, founded under J. Edgar Hoover.  The Osage Nation was forcibly moved off of their ancestral homes in Missouri and Arkansas during the turn of the century, and were given what was believed to be worthless land in the Indian Territory, which is now the State of Oklahoma.  But, unbeknownst to the white people who forced the move, the land that the Osage Nation owned was rich in oil.  By the 1920’s, the members of the Osage Nation were the richest people per capita in the entire world.  No longer living with what they could off the land, the Osage were now living in luxury, building oppulent mansions and owning multiple cars at a time when most Americans still couldn’t afford one.  And for the first time ever, they were being treated like royalty by the white people who once forced them to resettle.  Among the white population that has ingratiated himself to the Osage people is a cattle rancher named William Hale (Robert DeNiro) who has been affectionately nicknamed “King” by the people in the community.  His nephew, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), has returned from serving during the Great War, and Hale propositions him with the plan to ingratiate himself into the life of a wealthy heiress from the Osage Nation.  Mollie Brown (Lily Gladstone) has already lost a sister to illness and her mother Lizzie (Tantoo Cardinal) already has a foot in the grave.  If Mollie’s two other sisters die before her, she is set to inherit a vast fortune.  Ernest turns on the charm very quickly and manages to court and eventually marry Mollie.  Meanwhile, more Osage members turn up dead all over town.  Mollie and the other Osage members suspect there is a conspiracy at play, which prompts them to seek help from the government, since local law enforcement either seems disinterested or complicit in the murders.  Pretty soon, a former Texas ranger turned government agent named Tom White (Jesse Plemons) shows up and starts to shine light on the situation, causing divisions among the white population behind the conspiracy.  Ernest, getting caught up in all this, is pulled into two directions; obey the Machiavellian plans of his powerful uncle, or remain a loving husband to his embattled wife.

There really is no denying Scorsese’s might as a filmmaker after seeing Killers of the Flower Moon.  Even at 80 years old, he has not lost one ounce of his might as a cinematic storyteller.  And it only seems at this point that he is becoming even more ambitious in his old age.  Killers of the Flower Moon, like The Irishman, carries an expansive 3 hour and 26 minute runtime (Irishman was 3 hours and 29 minutes), which is not an easy runtime to fill and remain captivating from beginning to end.  Some filmmakers get lost in the attempt to go epic with their length, and end up floundering to fill that timeframe, but Scorsese has managed to not only do well with making long movies, but he also makes them feel fast paced and lively as well.  The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) is a great example as the whole 3 hours of that film is a feverish adrenaline rush that feels perfectly in tone with the crazed reality of the Wall Street world it is satirizing.  I think a big reason why Scorsese’s movies continue to feel alive in every frame of their long lengths is because of the perfectly attuned creative partnership he has had over 40 years with editor Thelma Schoonmaker.  The legendary creative partnership has managed to withstand the changing standards of the industry, and Thelma at this point is so effortlessly perceptive of the rhythm that Scorsese’s films must take.  They are two confident filmmakers with the same intuitive instincts about how to make a movie on an epic scale and make it sing.  Killers of the Flower Moon shows undoubtedly that their creative talents have not wavered, as the whole film is indeed a monumental achievement.  The one question is, how does it stack up against Scorsese’s own high standards.  Overall, pretty well, but with a few unfortunate shortcomings that holds it back from being an all time masterpiece.

In comparison to it’s recent predecessor, The IrishmanKillers of the Flower Moon is a more grounded and subdued movie, which has it’s benefits as well as it’s faults.  The interesting thing about the movie in the wide breadth of Scorsese’s body of work is that it’s the first movie of his that you could call a Western.  Mostly that has more to do with the aesthetic of the setting rather than the story itself, which actually surprisingly falls more into line with his oeuvre of mafia movies.  Along with the aesthetic of the old west the movie takes a quieter, more methodical approach to the story telling.  There are a lot of mood setting stillness in scenes throughout the film, with Scorsese making great use of sound and sometimes the absence of it to drive the emotion of a scene.  There’s a wonderful moment involving a rainstorm in the background that Scorsese just plays out to great emotional resonance.  I really appreciate that he has the confidence as a filmmaker to have character building moments like that play out in full without having to chop it up in order to tighten the plot.  At the same time, there are a few too many moments like that across the whole of the movie, and a few don’t really add much to the story.  After a while, the film gets repetitive (particularly in the middle) as the story stalls in order for the character interactions to play out in full.  Thankfully, at the 2 hour mark when the FBI arrives in town the movie’s pacing begins to improve, and it leads to a satisfying final hour.  But compared to Scorsese’s other epics, like Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas, and The Irishman, all of which never let up in their pacing, the more methodical pacing of Flower Moon makes the movie feel a bit more arduous to sit through for 3 hours.  It doesn’t ruin the movie too much.  I’d compare it to something like Scorsese’s Silence (2016), another beautiful but slower paced film for the director.  They are both movies that require patience on the part of the audience, but still are artistically satisfying in their own right.  Remember, the scale we are working with is solely within Scorsese’s filmography, and Killers of the Flower Moon handles it’s length far better than most epic movies do in general.  But, compared to his own movies, the pacing does knock it down a bit from the very peak of the filmmaker’s best work.

What the movie does exceptionally well, and perhaps at the most impressive level of his entire career, is to immerse the viewer into the setting of the film.  It is clear that Scorsese spent every little bit of the $200 million budget that Apple gave him and didn’t waste a cent.  The 1920’s period detail is exceptional, right down to the smallest prop placement.  Scorsese is no stranger to lavish period epics, but here he really outdoes himself.  What makes the movie impressive is just how well they make this a lived in setting for the characters.  The details of Mollie’s home, from the furniture to the color of the wallpaper just feels 100% authentic and just the way it would’ve been in that time period.  The fact that Scorsese shot the film in wide open prairies of Oklahoma also give the film that authentic flavor, and it makes great uses of the anamorphic widescreen frame as well.  It helps that he’s working with production designer Jack Fisk, whose resume also includes grim Western styled films like The Revenant (2015) and There Will Be Blood (2007).  Fisk just has that eye for recreating the American west with an air of foreboding danger lurking underneath, from the cozy opulence of the Osage manor houses to the roughness of a moonshine distillery camp on the outskirts of town.  It’s all beautifully captured through the lens of Rodrigo Prieto’s camera, whose making quite the bold jump in films this year, working on this immediately after shooting Greta Gerwig’s vibrant Barbie (2023).   It should also be noted that this movie marks the final collaboration between Scorsese and his longtime music producer Robbie Robertson.  One of the members of the legendary rock group The Band, Robertson first met Scorsese during the making of the influential concert documentary, The Last Waltz (1978), and the two have remained good friends since, with Robertson acting as the music supervisor on Scorsese’s films that featured a lot of pop music as part of the soundtrack, from The King of Comedy (1982) all the way up to The Irishman.  For Flower Moon, Robertson provides the omnipresent guitar infused heart beat that underscores most of the movie.  It’s simple but artistically daring choice, and it perfectly matches the melancholy that persist throughout the film.  Sadly Robertson passed away at the age of 80 this August, making Killers of the Flower Moon his final production.  It’s a fitting finale to a legendary musical career, and perhaps a fitting final personal statement given Robertson’s own ancestry with the First Nations tribes of Canada.

Of course, the thing that people are going to talk about the most with this film are the performances of it’s stars.  The most interesting thing about this cast is that it’s the first time that Scorsese is featuring both of his favorite leading men, DeNiro and DiCaprio in the same film.  Marty and Bobby have had perhaps the longest continuous partnership of actor and director that Hollywood has ever seen, going back 50 years to  their breakout film Mean Streets (1973).  Killers of the Flower Moon marks their 10th film together, and it’s clear that they both bring out the best in each other.  Not to be outdone, DiCaprio also seems to do his best work when acting for Scorsese, and Flower Moon is no exception.  In many ways, DiCaprio has the hardest role in the movie, because for most of the film he’s playing a bad person complicit in the conspiracy to kill multiple people throughout the story.  At the same time, he also has to show that there is a conscience underneath all the criminal activity, manifested through his genuine love for his wife and family.  A lot of actors would find it daunting to play a character like that, especially considering that the character could easily become too unlikable, not to mention a bit dim-witted.  But, Leo manages to strike the right balance and makes Ernest Burkhart a compelling character.  DeNiro likewise takes a character that could’ve been easily one dimensional and adds a bunch of complexity to the persona of William Hale, making him a rather interesting villain.  The scenes between him and DiCaprio are especially captivating.  It’s not the first time they’ve shared the screen together (going all the way back to 1993’s This Boy’s Life), but it is interesting to see the balance of power projected through their interactions on screen, showing both actors relishing in the material given to them in this film.  Of course the breakout for this movie is Lily Gladstone in the role of Mollie.  Her role is to ultimately represent the plight of the whole Osage people during this ordeal, and Lily does a magnificent job of creating a character in Mollie that represents quiet grace and power.  She says so much in this movie solely with a look.  It’s not a showy performance, and she more than anyone grounds this movie in it’s realism.  It’s a very brave performance too, given all the things that Mollie has to go through in this movie.  Unfortunately, the movie sort of sidelines her for a large chunk of the run time, which is another nitpick about the film, because you do miss the commanding presence that she brings to the movie.  A lot of the supporting cast is also great, with many of them played by character actors who feel right at home in the rugged setting.  One character actor named Ty Mitchell in particular looks like he was pulled right out of the old west with his distinct rugged features.  Like most of his other movies, Scorsese knows how to use his actors well.

Killers of the Flower Moon, for the most part, succeeds in creating a compelling and vast epic story about a dark time in our nation’s history.  Scorsese, naturally, nails all of the period details of the setting, and he doesn’t shy away from showing us all of the grisly details of what occurred in this true life story.  The violence in the film will still shock many, but it’s on par with what we’ve seen in most of Scorsese’s other films.  I don’t think any other filmmaker out there has made violence on screen feel so visceral and devoid of exploitation as he has.  When someone dies in his movies, you really feel the loss of a life, whether they were good or bad, and Flower Moon continues that tradition.  Comparatively, I feel that the movie falls a bit short of Scorsese at his absolute best, and that is largely due to the repetitiveness of the middle part of this movie.  Some of my favorite Scorsese films, like Goodfellas, The Departed (2006), The Wolf of Wall Street, and The Irishman just had better pacing from beginning to end.  Perhaps a tighter 3 hour cut would’ve made the movie work just a little bit better, but I honestly don’t know what would’ve been better left on the cutting room floor.  Individually, all the scenes are brilliant on their own, and just collectively it feels like a bit much.  Maybe on further re-watches the long length will feel a bit lighter.  Overall, it is still mightily impressive, and I’m happy that there are filmmakers who are not afraid to use 3+ hours to tell a story on the big screen.  It’s hard to know how well Killers of the Flower Moon will do with it’s 206 minute run time.  We are starting to see a bit of a revival of epic length movies recently at the box office, with Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) and Oppenheimer (2023) both banking huge profits in theaters despite 3 hour plus runtimes.  If anyone can achieve that same kind of success, it’s Martin Scorsese.  Killers of the Flower Moon may not be peak Scorsese, but it is nevertheless an impressive artistic achievement that should be seen on the biggest screen possible, and in many ways is a crucial documentation of a dark but pivotal chapter in history of the American West.  For shining a light on the troubled history that America has had with the first nation tribes that have been here long before there was an idea of America, the movie is very much an essential piece of cinematic art that we all need to see and absorb it’s greater meaning.

Rating: 8/10

What’s This? What’s This? – The Odd and Lasting 30 Year Legacy of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

When we think of Holiday movies, there can be only two holidays that come to mind that fill that definition.  Halloween and Christmas are the two holidays that have formed their own cinematic subgenres, and for the most part you couldn’t find more dissimilar groupings of films within each.  Christmas movies are generally defined by warm and cozy inspirational films, mostly geared towards a family audience, befitting the festivities of the holiday.  Halloween by contrast is the haven of horror and bloody gore, given the holiday’s attraction to the ghoulish and spooky.  There are some crossovers, like family friendly Halloween movies or horror filled Christmas movies, but generally these are holidays that do not mix within the same genre.  But, there is a movie that manages to bridge that gap, and to many is both a quintessential Halloween movie, and and a quintessential Christmas movie.  Released in October of 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas challenged the labels put on holiday films and set out to a celebration of both worlds.  The film was the brainchild of a young rising star filmmaker at the time named Tim Burton, who took a story idea that he had been formulating for years since his early career and had managed to finally bring it to the big screen.  The Nightmare Before Christmas was very much a risky film to put out at the time, and initially it was treated as an outsider by the company that made it, Disney, who chose to put it on their Touchstone Pictures label so as to not associate it with their own animation output.  But, thanks in part to it’s timely seasonal release, it managed to find an audience and over the years it became not just a hit for Disney, but an essential part of their animation library.  Now 30 years later, Nightmare Before Christmas is as prominent within the Disney identity as much as classics like Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), and the story of how it came to be is itself an unexpected journey.  If you want to know where holidays come from, then I say it’s time we begun.

In the early 80’s, Tim Burton had managed to use his artistic training and unique talent to land a gig at the Disney Animation studios.  Unfortunately, this was during what was known as the dark ages of Disney, where Animation was on the decline.  Burton and his fellow young colleagues were tasked with working on cute little animal productions like The Fox and the Hound (1981), which Burton particularly found artistically stifling.  In his off time, he would develop ideas for short films that he would pitch to the higher ups at Disney.  He managed to make a short stop motion animation project inspired by one of his horror movie icons named Vincent  (1982), based on actor Vincent Price of course.  Disney liked what they saw and gave Vincent a small release, and they even got the real Vincent Price to do the narration, which started a lasting friendship with the veteran actor and the fresh-faced filmmaker.  Seeing that Tim Burton had a flair for the macabre, Disney decided to give him a chance to direct an upcoming Halloween special they were working on called Frankenweenie (1984), which was to air on the newly launched Disney Channel.  This would mark Burton’s debut as a live action filmmaker, which of course would lead him down a whole other career path.  But, with the success of Vincent and Frankenweenine, Burton was hoping to have a chance to bring one dream project to reality while he was still at Disney.  During his upbringing in Burbank, California, Burton was always fascinated with the way that store shelves in his area would hold so much Halloween merchandise on one day, and then the very next it would all get replaced with Christmas wares once Halloween was over.  It inspired an idea in his mind of two holidays colliding together, with one struggling to take the place of the other.  During his early years at Disney, he crafted this idea into a three page poem which would in time become the inspiring concept of what would be The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Tim Burton’s original poem consisted of only three central characters; Santa Claus, of course, the Pumpkin King of Halloween named Jack Skellington and his faithful ghost dog Zero.  In the Poem, Jack Skellington stumbles across a gateway door to another holiday world, which just happens to be Christmas.  In Christmastown, he sees the joyful festivities of the yuletide, and wishes to bring that same feeling back to Halloweentown with him.  Jack and his fellow Halloween creatures create their own version of Christmas and in addition they kidnap Santa Clause to bring him to their world to show what they’ve made.  Jack wishes to take Santa’s place for this season, but it’s clear that his version of Christmas is too much like Halloween, which of course turns all the people back on Earth against him.  Santa, being surprisingly forgiving, tells Jack that it’s best that he continues to be the master of Halloween because it’s what he’s the greatest at, and that he should leave Christmas the way it is.  Jack is disheartened but Santa shows a bit of kindness by bringing a Christmas snowfall for the first time to Halloweentown.  Tim Burton believed that his poem could be the basis for another 30 minute holiday special for the Disney Channel.  He pitched the idea as a stop motion animation short, much in the same spirit of the Rankin Bass holiday specials of the 1970’s.  He worked with the same Claymation sculptor who helped him make the short Vincent, Rick Heinrichs,  and they crafted conceptual models of Jack Skellington and Santa Claus based on drawings Burton created himself when he first wrote the poem.  Sadly, the project was just too weird for the Disney executives to get behind, and with a whole new regime coming into the studio with Michael Eisner at the reigns, Burton believed that there was not much a future left for him at Disney.  So, in late 1984, Burton left Disney Animation.

Sadly, because he worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas as a contracted artist at the Disney Company, he couldn’t shop the project anywhere else because Disney still maintained the rights to it.  But, Tim would receive a bit of good luck thanks to the strong reception of his work on Frankenweenie that same year.  The imaginative short grabbed the attention of Los Angeles based comedian Paul Reubens, who was in development for a film based on his character Pee-Wee Herman.  Reubens and his producers believed that Tim Burton had the right kind of vision they were looking for to match the manic persona of the Pee-Wee character, and just like that, Tim Burton was a feature film director.  The movie was a success, and that led to Warner Brothers giving Burton a contract.  From this, Tim developed the imaginative macabre comedy called Beetlejuice (1988), which was the first movie of his where he really got to show off his unique visual style.  The oddball Beetlejuice likewise also clicked with audiences, which gave Warner Brothers the confidence to trust him with one of their biggest projects ever; Batman (1989).  Batman was a box office phenomenon, and it cemented Tim Burton not just as a force within Hollywood, but also a household name.  So, with the sudden meteoric rise of one of their former outcasts, Disney decided it was time to approach Mr. Burton once again about his Nightmare Before Christmas project.  Thankfully for them, Burton had wanted to revisit the project himself, as he was continually thinking about the story over the years.  With Disney’s recent string of hits under it’s belt alongside Tim Burton’s own success, the two sides felt confident they could make this film work now.  Tim Burton signed a special two picture deal to come back to Disney, which would include Nightmare and a biopic based on notorious B-movie director Ed Wood Jr.  But, there was still the obligation that Tim Burton had to fulfill with Warner Brothers, as they were wanting to fast track a sequel to Batman, and Burton was contractually obligated to complete.

Fearing that he would not be able to do double duty on both Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman Returns (1992), Burton made the hard choice to give up directing duties on Nightmare and just stay involved as the producer while working full-time as director on the Batman project.  In his place, Tim turned to another old friend and fellow Disney outcast named Henry Selick, who himself had developed a skill directing stop motion animation.  Burton entrusted Selick with bringing his vision to life, which would prove to be a daunting task.  With Jeffrey Katzenberg now in charge of the Animation department at Disney, the goal was no longer to just make a short Holiday special, but a full length feature instead.  This would be a first for stop motion animation, as the time consuming process had never advanced beyond short subjects before.  Still, Burton and Selick were determined to make it work out.  One big change was to expand the story.  It was no longer possible to do a whole 70-80 minute movie in rhyme, so writers like Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson were brought in to flesh the story out in a standard screenplay.  Jack Skellington was given a love interest in the sentient rag doll Sally, and a nemesis in the vindictive bag of bugs named Oogie Boogie.  The whole community of Halloweentown was fleshed out to include the double-faced Mayor, the mischievous trick or treaters Lock, Shock and Barrel, and the mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein.  But even with all the story changes, the for lack of a better word “skeletal” structure of the story remained, as well as the unmistakable Burton-esque look of it all.  Jack Skellington’s design never changed in all the years from Burton’s original drawing, and it’s remarkable how well it translated into the articulated figure used in the animation.  With incredibly detailed sets designed by Rick Heinrichs, the production began in earnest in a San Francisco based studio with 120 workers and up to as many as 20 soundstages working simultaneously on this elaborate project.

One of the most key elements of the production, however, would be the music.  The Nightmare Before Christmas, like all of Disney’s other productions at the time, would be a full-fledged musical.  But, unlike Disney’s other films, which was using the talents of Broadway vets like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Tim Burton would be relying upon his long time collaborator Danny Elfman to write the musical score for this film.  The one-time front man for the rock band Oingo Boingo had transitioned into a successful film composer thanks to his work with Tim Burton, having written the orchestral music for all of Burton’s films up to this point; from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) to Edward Scissorhands (1990).  However, Nightmare Before Christmas would be his first ever attempt at a musical, but it was a task that Elfman was ready for.  He invested himself more into this project than anything he had done before, and the result of his effort shows.  Each song is a show-stopper and immediately catchy.  Not only did he craft the film’s full musical score, with an astounding 10 original songs, but Elfman also provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington himself.  Probably due to the amount of work that Elfman had to do on the score made him unable to voice the character in all of the non-singing moments, but the film did manage to find a good soundalike for Elfman’s Jack with actor Chris Sarandon, who famously played a vampire in the horror film Fright Night (1985).  A lot of Tim Burton’s favorite regulars also got to voice characters in the movie including Catharine O’Hara as Sally, William Hickey as Dr. Finkelstein, Glenn Shadix (Otho from Beetlejuice) as the Mayor, and even Pee-Wee himself Paul Reubens as Lock.  There was also the incredibly inspired choice of casting Broadway vet Ken Page as Oogie Boogie, with boisterous and playful bellow of a voice perfectly matched for the over-the-top villain.  Sadly, one of Tim Burton’s dream casting choices was unable to become a reality.  Originally, Burton wanted his friend and idol Vincent Price to do the voice of Santa Claus.  But, when production began, Price’s health began to take a turn and he would soon pass away mere months before the film was released.  Burton wanted to give the key role of Santa to a worthy second choice, but none could match what Burton envisioned for the character.  In the end, a local voice actor named Edward Ivory provided Santa’s voice in the film.

Initially, when Disney finally saw the completed film, they were unsure what to do with it.  It was too much of a left-turn compared to their other animation output.  It was also being released in between two big productions of theirs; Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King.  The decision was made to release the film under their Touchstone banner, which was a compromise they also made on the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), which was the avenue they took if they had a movie that was too dark or adult themed for their typical family audience.  The movie also received a restrictive PG rating due to the scary imagery of the film.  Even with all that, The Nightmare Before Christmas still performed respectfully at the box office, grossing $90 million on a $40 million budget, probably helped by it’s timely Halloween weekend release.  It was on it’s home video release, however, that the movie genuinely began to catch fire.  The video tape release of Nightmare Before Christmas sold as well as any of Disney’s marquee catalog titles, and even more in some cases.  It steadily developed a cult following, with Danny Elfman’s musical score likewise becoming an omnipresent fixture in holiday playlists.  Songs like “This is Halloween” “What’s This?” “Oogie Boogie’s Song” “Kidnapping Sandy Claws” and “Making Christmas” have become some of the most popular in the modern Disney songbook.  Perhaps the biggest benefit for Disney however was the boon of merchandise sales they have made off of this movie over the last couple decades.  The Nightmare Before Christmas has enable Disney to reach a more adult oriented, gothic inclined demographic that typically wouldn’t go for their fairy tale fare, and that has given them a whole other branch of branding that stands well just on it’s own.  It’s not at all surprising to see a Jack Skellington shirt or hoodie being sold at a Hot Topic store near you even today, and that’s a testament to the continuing impact this film still has.  And just as Tim Burton had hoped for, it has become a classic standard of not just one but two holidays, much in the same vein as the classic Rankin Bass specials of old, showing in the end that he had the right story all along.

Tim Burton and Henry Selick would collaborate on one more project together, the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (also animated partially in stop motion), but the two parted ways thereafter.  There’s been a bit of contention between the two over the years over who has claim to the film overall.  Selick contends that he was the chief creative force on the film as he was the director and Burton was barely on set.  Tim counters by rightly pointing out that he created the original concept and did much of the early design of both the characters and the worlds they inhabit.  Also, his name was used to market the movie after all, with it still preceding the name of the film to this day as the full title Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Regardless, the two have taken separate paths since.  Tim Burton would continue to remain a successful live action filmmaker, and he would again undertake stop motion animation projects from time to time, only now finally in the role of director with 2005’s Corpse Bride and 2012’s Frankenweenie re-make.  Selick would join the Portland, Oregon based Laika Studios and direct their first feature film, Coraline (2009), which became a cult classic in it’s own right.  More recently Selick directed the stop motion film Wendell & Wild (2022) for Netflix.  All of these films (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, Coraline, and Wendell & Wild) definitely feel like spiritual successors to Nightmare Before Christmas, though none have managed to have the lasting impact that it has.  Tim Burton has contemplated ideas for a sequel, but nothing has come of it, and that feels like a good thing.  The Nightmare Before Christmas stands well enough on it’s own, and it’s not like we’ve been missing out with these characters.  They have enjoyed a long after life in all sorts of media outside of the film, from appearances in video games like Kingdom Hearts to a full holiday overlay of one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions; The Haunted Mansion.  The fact that Jack Skellington and his crew can occupy a beloved attraction like that for a full 1/3 of the year and no one complains about it but rather looks forward to it every holiday season is really something.  More than anything, the movie’s success all of these years is due to the fact that it feels timeless and just as entertaining today as it was when it first came out.  That’s a testament to the strength of Tim Burton’s original vision and the success of Henry Selick’s flawless execution of the animation.  And what other movie can you say bridges the holiday season better between Halloween and Christmas than it does.  Tim Burton believed that neither holiday was better than the other, but rather could become something special together.  And that’s a beautiful ideal, the macabre and merry co-existing, that has endured 30 years later and will continue to do so in the years ahead.  In this town, we call home, everyone hail to the pumpkin song.

What the Hell Was That? – The Haunted Mansion (2003)

To theme park enthusiasts around the world, the Haunted Mansion ride at Disneyland is considered hallowed ground.  The ride that opened at the Anaheim, California based theme park in the summer of 1969, and subsequently has spawned re-constructions of the same ride at Disney parks in Orlando, Tokyo, and Paris, is to many the pinnacle of ride engineering and theming.  The ride system itself that propels guests through the attraction was cutting edge at the time; taking a conveyer line assembly of ride vehicles called Omnimovers (or Doombuggies in this case) and stringing them together in a continuous loop through the show building.  But what made the Haunted Mansion stand out even more was the incredibly detailed theming throughout.  Haunted house are commonplace in most amusement parks, but Walt Disney wanted to take the concept and do something special with it.  He assembled his best “Imagineers” together to create a ride through attraction that used every trick in the book to immerse his guests in the experience.  The team used old magicians tricks like “peppers ghost” reflections and endless hallway mirror effects and combined them with newer effects like the recently developed Audio-Animatronic technology.  Haunted Mansion was developed as part of the New Orleans Square expansion at Disneyland, along with another landmark attraction called Pirates of the Caribbean.  And while many guests were wowed by the effects and theming of the attraction, they were also intrigued by the mystery of the Mansion itself.  Before it opened, a sign on the outside gate promised that the estate would be home to 999 “happy haunts” but they also have room for one more.  Unlike any theme park attraction built before, even the nearby Pirates, Haunted Mansion had it’s own built in lore.

There was a story to the Haunted Mansion, which made it much more than just a ride.  The 999 happy haunts were not just some random specters; they had names and a backstory.  There’s the foreboding voice of the Ghost Host (performed by the legendary voice actor Paul Frees) that follows visitors throughout the ride; Madame Leota, the fortune teller trapped within her own crystal ball; the Bride who lurks alone in the attic; the Singing Busts that serenade your visit to the cemetery; the Hitchhiking Ghosts who follow you through the finale; and Little Leota who beckons you to “hurry baaack.”  These were original characters that were found solely within the ride itself, and over time, they became just as famous within Disneyland as Mickey Mouse himself.  Haunted Mansion revolutionized the idea of storytelling within a theme park attraction, and it would prove to be a forbearer for many attractions thereafter, both for Disney and elsewhere.  Over the years, the lore of theme park attractions grew to a point where Disney felt confident that they could adapt them into theatrical films.  The idea would be risky, because even though a ride like the Haunted Mansion has a story buried within it, it’s also not a linear narrative that could easily translate into a film.  Disney initially tried to play it safe by giving their first theme park to movie translation project over to an adaptation of the Country Bear Jamboree.  The Country Bears (2002) naturally didn’t light up the box office, but it also wasn’t a huge financial risk either.  The bigger challenge would be in adapting the more ambitious Pirates of the Caribbean to the big screen.  And while many thought Disney was crazy to spend a fortune on a movie based on a ride, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) ended up being a massive hit, launching it’s own billion dollar franchise in the process.  With Pirates managing to succeed at bringing the experience of a ride to the big screen, it seemed only natural to select The Haunted Mansion as the next attraction to receive the movie treatment, given it’s already well known lore amongst the fans.  Unfortunately, 2003’s The Haunted Mansion would not be a repeat of that success.

On paper, it all looked like things were perfectly aligned for The Haunted Mansion.  Pirates of the Caribbean had proven the concept of turning a ride into a movie successful, becoming one of the year’s biggest hits at the box office.  There was a lot of crossover appeal for theme park fans, as both Haunted Mansion and Pirates have this shared history within the park and close proximity at Disneyland in particular.  There was all this built in lore that many fans of the ride couldn’t wait to see on the big screen for the first time.  Not only that, but the film was going to be directed by one of the talents behind The Lion King (1994), which was the studio’s biggest it at the time.  And it would star one of the biggest box office names in Hollywood.  However, once we found out who that star was, it likely became the first sign for many of what would ultimately go wrong for the film.  The Haunted Mansion had none of the creative spark that was found in Pirates of the Caribbean.  The Pirates movie made the smart move to become it’s own adventure tied to it’s own lore, with only brief little nods to the ride for fun.  It was less of an adaptation of a ride, and more of an original adventure piggybacking on a familiar name.  The Haunted Mansion, on the other hand, feels nothing like an adaptation, or a salute to the ride.  It just borrows the veneer of the well known ride and lays it over a lazily written, cliched family comedy.  There’s none of the rich lore in the film; it’s just a vehicle to showcase a bunch of ride highlights, without any context to their importance.  Sure, following in the wake of Pirates of the Caribbean was always going to be a challenge, but it is very clear that one film was delivered with a lot of thought and care put into it’s presentation, while the other was just meant to be there as a product.

Fundamentally, the biggest flaw that the movie has is that it doesn’t seem to really care about the ride it’s based on.  Tonally it misses the mark entirely.  Walt Disney envisioned the ride to be a place that felt spooky but never terrifying for the guests.  This is perfectly illustrated through the progression of the ride, where the experience begins with it’s scariest moment.  In an incredible effect that still wows to this day, guests enter a disguised freight elevator that is made to look like a portrait room.  As the elevator descends, the room gives the effect that it is stretching, visualized through the unraveling of the portraits “hanging” on the walls.  Once the room reaches the bottom level, the Ghost Host tells us how he managed to escape the room.  The lights suddenly go out, a flash of lightning draws our eyes up, and a hanging corpse can be seen dangling above us.  This is the scariest the attraction ever gets, and it’s right at the beginning.  Things remain spooky for the first part of the ride, heading down dimly lit hallways, but the Ghost Host says that the spirts are feeling our “sympathetic vibrations” and decide to materialize before us to make us feel more welcome.  From then on, going through a magnificent ballroom and then out to the cemetery, the atmosphere is festive, as the ghosts have their “swingin’ wake.”  Not surprisingly, The Haunted Mansion movie doesn’t have anything remotely scary about it, and any attempt at it just feels forced and clumsy.  The scariest part of the attraction, the Stretching Room, doesn’t even show up at all in the movie, though the opening prologue does show the origin of the hangman.  It’s very apparent that Disney intended this movie to never go beyond PG in terms of scares, which just defeats the whole purpose of translating the experience of the ride into the movie.  That’s why the movie leans far more into the comedy than the scares, because it’s just easy to play safe and within the bounds of the Disney brand that way.  But, as the movie shows, they couldn’t even make the comedy work that well either.

The most apparent problem with the movie is that it just feels like an easy paycheck vehicle for it’s star; Eddie Murphy.  Murphy is just a bad fit for this kind of movie.  I understand why Disney pursued him for the role.  Eddie was coming off of a career high point in the late 1990’s with the mega-successful remake of The Nutty Professor (1996), and he followed that up with well received roles in Dr. Doolittle (1998) and Bowfinger (1999), as well as successful vocal performances as Mushu in Mulan (1998) and as Donkey in Shrek (2001).  Disney certainly believed that having his name on the marquee would be a huge advantage for the film.  But, the style of Haunted Mansion the ride doesn’t fit well with the style of comedy that Eddie Murphy excels at.  Murphy has always been at his best when he’s a wisecracking jokester, like in the Beverly Hills Cop movies, or as a fully immersed, over-the-top character like he did as the entire Klump family in The Nutty ProfessorThe Haunted Mansion gives him neither to work with.  Here he’s just an over-worked Dad whose takes his family to the Mansion as a prospective real estate acquisition.  Eddie Murphy’s trademark wisecracks just butts up against the tone that needs to be set for the movie to be like the ride.  Every time the movie attempts to be spooky, you can always count on Eddie to deflate the moment with a poor attempt at a joke.  It’s this clash that proves to be the most frustrating, because we all know how funny Eddie Murphy can be when he’s in his element, and how atmospheric the Haunted Mansion can be when it’s allowed to build it’s presence.  The movie is trying to shoehorn the aesthetic of the Haunted Mansion, with all of it’s iconography and rich lore, into what is essentially a pale imitation of an Eddie Murphy family comedy.  And you can tell that Eddie’s heart is not in it.  Half of his performance is just going wide-eyed when he sees something scary, or delivering an over-the-top scream.  Not a single funny beat lands, and it’s pretty embarrassing to watch so much talent be wasted.

Eddie Murphy is not the only miscast part of this movie.  There is the completely non-sensical choice of casting actress Jennifer Tilly as Madame Leota.  Like Eddie Murphy, Tilly can be quite good in a role that best fits her talents.  But, she is definitely a bad fit for a role like Madame Leota.  Leota is perhaps the character best remembered from the original ride; the disembodied head within a crystal ball.  Apart from the iconic structure itself, Madame Leota is the most visible element of the ride seen in most of the theme park marketing for the attraction.  Apart from her appearance, it’s her ethereal voice that also makes her stand out, delivered by the legendary Elanor Audley, a voice actress responsible for not one but two of Disney’s most iconic villainesses;  Lady Tremaine in Cinderella (1950) and Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Jennifer Tilly’s high pitched, shrill voice just doesn’t sound right at all, and her appearance also makes Leota feel too young.  Leota should be this seasoned, old veteran and Ms. Tilly just sounds very amateurish and not at all ethereal like the character should be.  The rest of the cast also feels either too wacky or too wooden.  There’s a ghost footman and ghost maid played by Wallace Shawn and Dina Spybey-Waters that again tries to force out comedy in the film that just falls flat.  The movie even forces an “inconceivable” out of Wallace Shawn that just feels desperate.  Nathaniel Parker’s performance as the ghostly owner of the Mansion, Master Gracey, is unremarkable, as are the performances of the members of Eddie Murphy’s character’s family. The only passable performance is from Terrence Stamp as the villainous butler Ramsley.  His performance is almost the right amount of camp spookiness that feels right at home with the tone that the Haunted Mansion is supposed to set.

One of the other big problems from this movie is that it just feels so bland.  Director Rob Minkoff just takes this very flavorless approach to the filming of this movie.  You could argue that he’s a filmmaker more comfortable in the realm of animation, which is where he got his start at the Disney Studio.  But, The Haunted Mansion was not his debut as a live action filmmaker.  Just a few years prior, he had directed Stuart Little (1999) and it’s 2002 sequel.  He had already proven himself as a live action director, but like with Eddie Murphy, he was also a bad fit for this material.  He approached The Haunted Mansion like it was one of the same kids movies he had worked on before.  There is no sense of the foreboding atmosphere that the Haunted Mansion should have in this movie.  The film has this glossy, effects heavy feel to it that makes the film feel more cartoonish than eerie.  Albeit, there’s some interesting production design elements that’s attempting to make this mansion look unique and not just a carbon copy of the ride, and it features some great camera work from Award-winning cinematographer Remi Adefarasin (Elizabeth, Band of Brothers).  But the movie as a whole has no creative drive to make all of those elements come together.  Pirates of the Caribbean worked out because it felt like a lived in world where the characters were interesting and the adventure carried some heavy stakes.  It didn’t have to rely upon a viewers’ familiarity with the ride; though it did reward you with some well placed Easter eggs.  In The Haunted Mansion, the story and the characters lack any identity, which just makes the inclusion of the elements from the ride feel all the more unremarkable.  We see familiar things throughout like the ballroom dancers, or the Hitchhiking Ghosts, or a memorable line here and there, and none of it carries any weight because the movie around it lacks anything worthwhile.  The movie needed a vision behind it that was invested in doing justice to the atmosphere of the ride.  The Pirates films had Gore Verbinski, who had a vision that perfectly matched the assignment.  Rob Minkoff just feels like a hired hand who was just there to get the movie across the finish line.  There was at one time a version of this movie that was put into development with Guillermo Del Toro involved.  Sadly, nothing came of that movie, and it has since become one of those great “what if’s” in cinema history.

Disney did eventually return to the Haunted Mansion 20 years later with a second attempt at bringing the ride and it’s lore to the big screen.  Emboldened by the success of the Jungle Cruise (2021) movie starring Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, which grossed a respectable $100 million in a pandemic affected box office, Disney felt they could do right by the attraction with a new, more focused adaptation.  Director Justin Simien, who once worked as a Disneyland cast member, seemed to be far more invested in getting a Haunted Mansion movie right, and the end result is a marked improvement over the failed Eddie Murphy version.  Unfortunately Disney mishandled it’s release, choosing to put it out in July against tough competition like Barbie (2023), instead of saving it for a more appropriate Fall release in time for the Halloween season.  Unfortunately, the newer Haunted Mansion failed to do any better at the box office than it’s 2003 predecessor, though it is vastly better in pretty much every way.  I’d say that the one good thing about the failure of the Eddie Murphy Haunted Mansion is that it became quickly forgotten after it’s doomed release.  Because the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were so popular, it ended up pushing Disney into making changes to the original ride much to the objections of Disneyland fans.  The Pirates ride now has to reference the movies it inspired, with Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow now shoehorned into scenes throughout the ride.  Thankfully, the Haunted Mansion remains untouched.  Can you imagine how bad a change it would be if they had Jennifer Tilly’s face in Madame Leota’s crystal ball (which Disney did seriously consider, before the movie tanked)?  And ultimately that’s the one saving grace about the movie, is that it is so forgettable that it doesn’t reflect poorly on the ride that inspired it.  The Haunted Mansion ride is still a timeless classic that remains just as popular as it has ever been, and the failed Eddie Murphy adaptation is just a footnote in it’s storied history.  Between the two adaptations, you are better off seeing the flawed but still more respectable recent Haunted Mansion (2023), which does a more valiant job of trying to capture the atmosphere of the ride.  It’s a deserving watch in this spooky time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight.