Let's cut right to the chase. I think he's good.
On May 9, 2015, the legendary Hat Box Ghost reappeared after a nearly 46-year absence. When it was announced that no, really, this time for sure, no foolin', the HBG was going to return to the HM, and a temporary construction wall went up to prove it, there were not a few among us more worried than excited. Hatbox is a cult figure, one for the true blue doombugs, and among them there is a solid consensus that when it comes to the Haunted Mansion, the track record of Walt Disney Imagineering over the past decade has left something to be derided. You can review the bullet points below if you want particulars, or you can skip them if you'd rather bask in the 100% positive vibes currently washing over the Long-Forgotten blogsite.
Why We Were Weelly, Weelly Worried
- Floating Leota (2005) has never gotten anything more than a lukewarm response. The change felt, and still feels, wrong. Here's where treating this thing like a work of art proves its worth. What had always been the calm, stabilizing center of the ride was now simply another floating object. Everything about her—her chronological placement in the show flow, her pivotal position in the three-act play that is the Haunted Mansion, even her physical location in the room—announces that "here is the center, the eye of the storm." Nothing was gained and something was lost when she took flight.
- The marked improvement in the way the changing portraits work (also 2005) and the gratitude from traditionalists for returning the presentation to its original lightning-flash mode was spoiled somewhat by disappointment over the removal of the beloved April-December portrait. Some of us have never forgiven them for that. I think she is missed more than they figured she would be. I think there are Imagineers who miss her more than they thought they would.
- Constance (2006) is intensely disliked by the hardcore fans. Not only is the effect poorly done, but we all resent having a story shoved down our throats. The attic has been turned into a tedious interlude between the ballroom and the graveyard. In fairness, there is some nice special effects work with the five wedding portraits, but I'd take a single blast-up spook over the whole lot of them any day.
- On the other hand, the 2007 "Rehaunting" of the Orlando Mansion was for the most part a smashing success, especially the Escher-like staircases. The sound system and augmented soundtrack in the stretching gallery have also been well received. The ghostly eyes that segue into the wallpaper upstairs are imaginative and appropriate. The only real sour note here has to do with the baffling Disneylandification of the Orlando Mansion, watering down its unique personality in a pointless attempt to make it more like the Anaheim original. The Disneylandish changing portrait hall (goodbye "Sinister 11" and their watchful eyes) and the redecoration of the COD are probably the chief offenders here. Foxxy simply wants to know why, and others among us do too.
- The 2011 interactive queue at WDW remains the worst thing that has ever happened to any of the Mansions in their entire history. Bring on the bulldozers. The CG mirror hitchhikers are marginally better but still inferior to what they replaced. In a haunted house, "Oh, they just do that with computers" cannot compare with, "Wait. How do they do that?" And there is still no possible excuse for a CG Ezra that doesn't even look like Ezra.
There is a vast amount of great videography and photography out there. (HERE, HERE, HERE for video; HERE, HERE, HERE for photos, and there's plenty more where that came from.) There is an official Disney video HERE.
He's not inside the attic, in his original position, but a few yards away, just outside the exit. Not much was there previously:
Thanks to friends in low places, I know that they've been seriously considering that location for the HBG since at least 2009. The reason is that they can control the lighting better in that location than they can inside the attic. In fact, I'm told that a HBG figure was actually installed and tested in 2009. There were problems, but they were still going ahead with the project, hoping to have him ready for the Mansion's 40th anniversary, but the plug was pulled at the last minute.
The entire area out there has been beautifully redesigned as a large porch with a pergola, including (faux) wrought ironwork similar in design to what the HM has out front. Behind the HBG are double doors partially open. There is a group of fanged and red-eyed bats inside, hanging upside down and extremely difficult to photograph. Here's the best I've seen so far:
There are hatboxes everywhere. Each of the five wedding portraits inside the attic now has a hatbox nearby, there is a stack of three more in front of the HBG to his left, and there's another pile of five on his right, some of them stacked on a hand truck. Since hand trucks are not exactly stereotypical haunted house paraphernalia, one suspects that a story item will eventually emerge involving the arrival or retrieval of gobs of hatboxes. Presumably, this will tie the new guy back into the attic scene. Not really looking forward to that, but at least for now it's a mystery.
So, What's Not to Like?
According to some, plenty.
Some Mansion fans don't like the new avatar, predictively enough, and I suppose some of them may wonder why yours curmudgeonly truly seems so satisfied with the new HBG. For whatever they're worth, here are my responses to some of the objections that have been raised.
The number one complaint is that he's got a computer generated face that wriggles and smirks. Everyone knows that's what it is, so there goes all the mystery. "Oh, it's done with computers" = no magic, remember? The CG hitchhikers at WDW are horrible. The HBG isn't as bad as they, but can't we keep the cartoons out of the Mansion?
In response, let me point out that Madame Leota, Little Leota, and the Singing Busts also have CG faces that wriggle and smirk (let's leave Connie out of this for now). Hmm? What's that? You say they're not CG? They're film of actual faces? You're right, of course, but I wonder what percentage of new riders under the age of 30 or so unthinkingly assume that those faces are CG images. Our thorough knowledge of the difference between the two ways of projecting a face may keep us from seeing how similar the results have become. Mansioneers, we'd better face the fact that the days are gone when the "Leota Effect" inspires gasps of surprise and wonderment as to how it's done, even if the way these Millennials think it is done is wrong! "Oh, it's CG" is the new "Oh, it's a hologram."
There isn't that much wriggling and smirking anyway. His eyes blink and his pupils move. I find it hard to believe that Yale Gracey would not have incorporating those features in the original figure if he could have found a good way to do so. So far as I can tell, the only other animation that takes place is when his eye sockets squint angrily. I find it easy to accept this bit of cartooning because it is consciously designed and directed toward the creation of a particular effect that cannot be done otherwise. Several riders have noted how downright creepy it is when Hattie seems to make direct eye contact with you at one point and gives you a fiendish scowl. Well, his face has to react in some way for such an effect to be achieved. Add to this how surprisingly close the new HBG stands to the doombuggies, and we're told you can get a real chill from the new HBG, going right down your spine. In pursuit of such a worthy purpose, a bit of animation is absolutely necessary. I say huzzah and congratulate them for their remarkable restraint in this area.
or try to find a "happy medium" between the two approaches. This pseudo-animation cell has been out there for a year or so.
By the way, I suppose it's heresy, but I've always thought the face in that second sketch is weak. Even the great Marc Davis didn't give us the Sistine Chapel every time out, and in my opinion this simply isn't one of his best.
Here's another point. With the CG hitchhikers, you watch them like you'd watch a cartoon show. In contrast, the face of the HBG isn't really the show itself; it's more like an element in a show. The HBG is a solid, fully-dimensional AA figure, much praised for its fluid and yet restrained movement (there's that word again). It's just enough to say, "Yes, I'm alive" without saying, "Look, I can dance!" It serves as the stage for a show, and not just any show but a magic show.
It took us all of two days, I think, to figure out how the trick is done. I won't spoil it for you. (There's probably a "spoiler" cloaking device somewhere around here at Blogger, but pthh, I'll just put the Forbidden Knowledge in a Comment.) Suffice it to say that the trick involves scrim, a two-way mirror, clever misdirection, a basically simple mechanical gimmick, a "black art well," and strategically placed lighting. In other words, we're essentially back in front of a 19th century magic show, the main difference being that the rabbit popping in and out of the hat is a dummy rabbit with a modern, inner-projected face. The official Disney video for the debut of the new HBG refers to the use of "fundamental tricks and illusions" already pioneered by Yale Gracey. It's already the case that guesses as to how it's done generally make it more complicated than it is. In my book, that's one of the signs of a good magic trick. All of this warms the heart, let me tell you.
Reportedly, the Imagineer responsible for finally figuring out how to make the vanishing head effect work is John Gritz. He's been called a present-day Yale Gracey by colleagues, which is high praise indeed. Other Imagineers involved include Jeff Shaver-Moskowitz (show producer) and Daniel Joseph (special effects).
You're a keen one, Mr. Gritz. Since virtually every explanation of why the original effect didn't work says that the figure was just too close to the track for the face to convincingly disappear, I have to wonder if the placement of the new figure right in your effin' face bespeaks a certain triumphalism after so convincingly licking the problem. Fun to think so, anyway. A little end-zone dance would be fully justified.
Another quibble: they didn't bring back the quivering hand on top of his cane (which is the one feature I remember most vividly from the original HBG). This too makes him seem less the old man that he was. But here again, I can't get too worked up. Quick, violent vibrations are sheer hell on machinery. Eventually it shakes things to pieces. If you want proof, just look at this well-known and unique shot of the original HBG in situ. It's a few weeks old at maximum, and his wrist is completely shot.
The End of the Quest
Like any long journey, when it finally ends there's a bit of a letdown. We've all been bellerin' "Bring back the Hat Box Ghost!" for so long that it's hard to believe it's happened. And now that's done. Cheer up, you Mansionites, there's always Miss April!