In March and April of this year (2011), major additions came to the WDW Mansion. Since this is the first time a big change has occurred on our watch (i.e. since this blog debuted), I thought it would be appropriate to do a full review. Um...it's not as if my opinions are a secret or anything. I've been stapling them to every telephone pole I can find over the past few months. I've also been engaged in some pretty lengthy discussions of the additions in various Disney fora, and it's all been good, because it's clarified my thinking, I think. So some of what follows I've said elsewhere, but here is my first real attempt to pull it all together and try to get at the core of the issue.
About the New Queue
So far, there are two places the additions have appeared: (1) the queue area formerly occupied by the "family plot" graveyard and (2) the hitchhiking ghost portion inside the ride. I'll deal with the hitchhikers in a separate post—probably the next one—and stick to the queue today, but I should say in advance that I find more to praise in the new HHGs than I do with the queue, so expect a slightly happier post about them.
The new queue is "interactive," which essentially means that guests are encouraged to play with the new stuff and not simply look at it. To that end, some clever electronic gizmos that respond to touch and sound are embedded in the three new crypts. They talk and play music and spray water and move books in and out. I'm not going to speak to the performance of these devices, since reports about how well they work are mixed, and I think you have to give the Imagineers some slack to work out the inevitable bugs in new technology. I will say that I don't see anything ghostly about a predictable mechanical response to a particular type of stimulus. Does anyone really get the feeling that someone is in there? Are there really people who think vending machines are kinda creepy?
For some, this is its one saving grace, since they can pretend it doesn't exist. I haven't been to Orlando, so I can't comment on how well this strategy works, but in general I'm leery about whether you can or should simply ignore major additions to the ride from the almighty hands of WDI. It is an imaginary world, and the only "reality" in there is the reality created by WDI, for good or ill. Besides, at least one item from the queue has been incorporated into the ride: A portrait of a new character from the queue now sits beside the three hitchhikers, strong evidence that the Imagineers consider the new material compatible with the old. If fans of the Orlando HM who hate the queue have come up with successful work-around strategies for coping with the new material, more power to them. I am going to treat it as something that is really there.
The enclosed queue itself mainly consists of (1) a set of busts depicting one of the families that once inhabited the house, (2) three large crypts, and (3) several grave markers, including three old ones from the "family plot" that used to be there. In addition to all this, the lawn area beyond the enclosed queue now features a much larger graveyard, with the remainder of the old headstones relocated and a slew of new ones, plus anonymous markers and details like shovels stuck in the ground.
What's Good About It
What is good here? Well, the new queue is tribute city, dude. As every Mansionite knows, the epitaphs on the old headstones were sly tributes to various Imagineers who helped create the original ride, and the new team clearly wanted to fill in some gaps in this area. I myself have commented on how unjust it is that "the Father of the Haunted Mansion," Ken Anderson, had no tribute of any kind in the finished attraction, while there were others who had more than one. Weep no more, my friends. The new queue has tributes not only to Anderson, but to Blaine Gibson, Paul Frees, Rolly Crump, Collin Campbell, Harriet Burns, Thurl Ravenscroft, and Dorothea Redmond, all of whom are worthy candidates for a little kiss-blowing. Most of these tributes are epitaphs, and all of these are genuinely witty and macabre in the best boot-hill tradition of HM epitaphs.
Also worthy of praise is the dolling up of the graveyard with handsome and appropriately old-fashioned funerary artwork. It looks more like a rich family's graveyard now, although it may be a little overblown, slopping all the way out and into the trees and making you wonder if this is still supposed to be a private family plot. I'm assuming it is. Oh, I also like the shovels, now that it seems likely that they're going to be overgrown with vines so as to look like they've been there a long time.
Pepe Le Queue
And that's it. The rest of this thing is terrible; in fact, it is in my opinion the worst thing that has ever happened to any of the HMs in their entire 42-year history. If, like me, you feel obliged to swallow the bitter medicine and include WDI-generated material into the imaginative experience of the HM, then I will go so far as to say that the responsible parties, Peter Carsillo (art director and show designer), Eric Goodman (show producer), and Eric Jacobson (Senior VP of Creative Development), have ruined the WDW Haunted Mansion. I have no doubt that the motives of these Imagineers were good, but the Orlando Mansion is no longer the same kind of attraction as its twin in Tokyo or the original in Anaheim. Because the simple truth is, Pepe Le Queue tampers with the fundamental concept of the ride, changing it to something radically different from what it was originally and what it has always been, through all the changes and additions over the years.
What are we supposed to think that raven is made out of, anyway? Concrete? Metal? Wood? Same with those candles. They look like real wax candles. What would they be doing on the candleholders carved on an outdoor funeral monument? Turning to the next crypt, the Captain's "Tubsoleum" is impossibly silly, like nothing anyone would ever build in the real world. The third crypt is pink. A pink crypt.
They didn't even try to make these look like real crypts. They look more like children's play stations, or like I said, something that would look at home in Mickey's Toontown.
The narrative problem is far more serious. It should be obvious to anyone that the HM has a deliberate show flow, a sort of plot. It starts out low-key, sombre, and sinister. In fact, the entire first half of the ride is creepy and scary, relieved only by the humor of the stretchroom portraits; and yet even these are so macabre that they can be taken as veiled threats. It is only after Madame Leota enables the frustrated ghosts to materialize that you discover that they are really not such a bad lot; for the most part they are just a bunch of fun-loving ghosts. By the time you get into the graveyard for the show climax, you are laughing at "silly spooks" come out to socialize.
Pepe Le Queue throws this presentation into the trash can. Now you learn immediately, even before you go through the doors, that the ghosts are silly and good-natured, nothing to be scared of, no more intimidating than Casper the Friendly Ghost. PLQ also provides at least one specific show spoiler, showing you banshees floating out of the organ pipes, just as you will see later in the ballroom. This queue is like the rude guy in the movie theater who has seen the film already and is loudly talking to friends about how the story is going to end.
It's the conceptual problems, however, that are the most serious of all. Pepe is a nest of logical absurdities and contradictions.
- How is it that ghosts that have never been seen before (the banshees) are commemorated in stone on an old crypt? The organist is dressed in Victorian garb, so presumably he's been dead and buried here for a century or so.
- Why are ghosts depicted on a funeral monument at all? Graves for ghosts?
- Similarly, the banner in Prudence Pock's crypt makes reference to her activities as a ghost:
- On one side of the organist's crypt are depictions of musical instruments from the Séance circle and the graveyard band. But the graveyard band consists of ghosts from different historical periods who have gathered together here at the HM and are going to be making their debut as a band later in the ride (the old Caretaker has never seen these graveyard spooks before). Some are wearing 18th c. (?) bandsmen uniforms and others are in medieval attire. How did the musical instruments used by this ad hoc combo from scattered times and places come to be depicted on an old crypt, as if they played together in life?
- "Captain Culpepper Clyne" is evidently the same character depicted in one of the "Sinister 11" portraits, the ghostly mariner. But that painting plainly tells us that he drowned at sea in a shipwreck. The crashing ship is depicted behind him and his ghost is covered with seaweed, barnacles, and a starfish. But the new crypt's epitaph says that he did not drown at sea but in his bathtub on dry land, and just to make sure that the proverbial "average guest" does indeed identify the occupant of the crypt with the figure in the painting, the Imagineers have painstakingly decorated the Tubsoleum with his barnacles and his starfish! In other words, they have cemented the identification of the two mariners with precisely the things that make the epitaph impossible.
- Two of the old gravestones, "Francis Xavier" and "Grandpa Marc," are now the first things you see in the new queue area after the busts, and they are installed in a planter that leaves no room for a body to be buried in front of either one.
- The Haunted Mansion is a retirement home for ghosts "from creepy old crypts all over the world." While not a contradiction per se, the new queue has turned a number of these ghosts into family members who once resided in the house. Besides the organist, one glance at the new headstones out in the family plot and we learn to our surprise that the three hitchhikers (Gus, Ezra, Phineas) are now apparently relatives and former residents. So are the men depicted as singing busts. It's possible, I guess....
- Ravens typically live 10 or 12 years, but what is evidently the same raven character we will meet inside the house (never presented as anything but a real bird) is depicted on the roughly 100-year old organist's crypt. And why is he there, anyway? Is there anything associating the two characters?
You get the idea. The correct response to all of these questions is: "Look, don't ask such questions. If you do, you are thinking about all of this too much and demanding far more logical continuity from these gags than necessary. Lighten up, they're all in the spooky, kooky spirit of the attraction, and that's what's important. It's not supposed to mimic the real world; it's a funsy, imaginary world."
Real World or Fantasy World?
In the previous post I argued that the Haunted Mansion does indeed simulate the real world, your world, except that it has ghosts in it. I noted that many people dispute this, arguing (or rather assuming) that the HM is a fantasy world from start to finish. The ghosts are wacky, so it stands to reason that they were wacky when they were alive as well. So yes, as a matter of fact, it is like Toontown, just less extreme.
Barring some sort of dead giveaway like talking animals, the easiest way to spot the difference between the two concepts (realistic world vs. fantasy world) is by looking at the humans depicted in each. Does this guy look like he could be your next door neighbor, or not?
The new portrait busts in PLQ (known as the Dread family during the testing phase) are heavily caricatured humans, bordering on cartoony. According to Carsillo and team, the people who built the house and lived in it evidently were people who had intelligent pet sea serpents, built impossibly silly crypts, and lived in a universe where strict logical consistency is always subject to the needs of the current gag, much as Elmer Fudd may either fall when he steps off of a cliff or remain magically suspended until he notices where he is, depending on which seems funnier to the cartoonists.
Not all HM Imagineers would agree. Even though I have some serious problems with the Constance additions, I note with appreciation that those Imagineers were at least fully aware that "real" humans built and lived in this house. For Connie's wedding portraits, photos of real humans were used, and the ghost itself is a filmed human. It makes sense, doesn't it? Madame Leota, "Little Leota," and the Singing Busts are all films of real human faces. But Carsillo has rejected the sensibilities governing the previous Imagineering teams (and at WDW, that's only four years ago!). The result is that we now have one set of former Mansion residents (the Dreads) who must never be seen juxtaposed to another set (Connie and husbands), because the stylistic clash would be intolerable. How stupid.
The Carsillo team has decided to place a stronger accent on the silly, comic side, and move the HM away from the darker, scarier side. To that end, they have consciously and deliberately taken their inspiration (1) from the looser, more cartoonish feel of Marc Davis's concept artwork, (2) from Blaine Gibson's whimsical sculpture, and (3) from Collin Campbell's classic illustrations for the "Story and Song" souvenir record album. (I know all of this to be true; don't ask me how.) Regardless of how you feel about the eternal tension in the HM between silly and scary, the Carsillo team has betrayed a gruesome misunderstanding of the very artwork they have turned to for inspiration.
And not a one of them made it into the final attraction. The ones that weren't dropped outright Blaine Gibson and his team consistently and invariably turned into more realistic-looking figures, presumably with Davis's blessing. What impulse drove them in that direction, one wonders? You don't suppose it was because they all decided at some point that we're never supposed to leave the "real" world, do you? "But wait a sec; Gibson's ghosts still look pretty loopy to me, not like 'real' ghosts." That argument might carry more weight if we had some idea of what "real" ghosts are supposed to look like. Behold, a gallery of "real" ghosts.
Gibson was a genius at knowing where the line is between caricature and cartoon. Your mileage may vary, but here's my working definition of the difference: caricature exaggerates within the possible, while the cartoony ignores this limitation. People do exist with noses the size of golf balls, but not tennis balls. In his classic POTC and HM faces, Gibson never goes past the golf ball.
Furthermore, Gibson's caricature has a sober, pragmatic purpose: it enables the viewer to read the character instantly, even in less-than-ideal lighting conditions, and even from 30 feet away. From the boat, all of his pirates look like real men. But from two feet away, with the work lights on, a lot of them look pretty goofy, almost cartoony.
I freely concede that Carsillo's "Bertie" is within the Blaine Gibson tradition of caricature. And if Bertie were dressed up as a pirate and firing a cannon from the Wicked Wench, he'd be fine. But he's not. He's right there in broad daylight, inches away, and you can examine him all over with a magnifying glass, and for as long as you wish.
Sorry, but from this vantage point I cannot imagine that guy as my neighbor. He and his sea serpent are from cartoonland after all. And if you cannot imagine yourself in the same world as Bertie and his sea serpent, you can only be an audience to it. I call that a radical change in the fundamental concept of the attraction. How much more boring that is than the original premise: you in a "real" haunted house!
As for Collin Campbell, another influence, these guys seem to forget that his delightful artworks for the "Story and Song" album were illustrations for a children's record, as he was fully aware.
Incidentally, Carsillo's preference for the kooky over the spooky has led to something like grand larceny. He has taken ghosts from the scary column and reassigned them to the silly side. The organ banshees are not funny, but he's turned them into buck-toothed squirt guns.
The Point of Reference
If you've decided the HM is not a simulation of the real world and have thrown logical consistency to the breeze in the process, what is the guiding principle holding the new material together? You must have something. What replaces "make it realistic"? Sadly, the ultimate point of reference in PLQ, at any rate, is nothing more than "the wonderful world of Haunted Mansion icons." It is relentlessly self-referential. Pepe practically shouts, "Is this Haunted Mansion ride GREAT, or WHAT?" It makes the ride celebrate itself. Thus the gravestones that used to look like real gravestones over real graves, and which incidentally also happened to have quiet tributes on them to X. Atencio and Marc Davis, are now no longer gravestones at all but tributes only. They're pushed right into your face so you won't miss them. They're signs now; they're placards. They're tributes to tributes.
The Fellowship of the Ring
Here's the story for those of you who don't know it. Once upon a time, a turnstile was removed near the exit of the WDW HM. An anchoring pipe inside of it was sawn off at pavement level. One day, someone looked at it and thought it looked an awful lot like a ring.
And that was it. Magic. Lightning had struck. Fans began thinking it was the bride's wedding ring, flung down from the attic and embedded in the ground. Everyone would make a point to go look at it as they exited the ride. Doombuggies.com put up a sticky post telling people how to find it. Cast members either went along with the gag or scolded guests and told them it was NOTHING. There's nothing there. Will you forget about it please? It's just a pipe. Of course, this only added to the mystique. This was a bit of Mansion magic definitely off the menu. An accidental piece of hardware that, due to its freak location, was able to tease and coax the most stubborn imagination into thinking it was a ring, even when you knew it was not a ring. It became a sort of tribute to the Mansion from its fans, a gift back.
Not many years ago, the idiots at WDW removed the "ring"—in a fit of pique, one supposes. You can't buy magic like that, but it wasn't an official WDI product, so death to it. Now Carsillo, in sympathy with the fans (which is to his credit), has put a real ring in the pavement of his queue.
This is just sad. Isn't it obvious that you can't put that kind of lightning in a bottle? It was precisely the accidental, illicit quality of the "ring" that made it mysterious and special. What the boring new ring really amounts to is another tribute to a tribute.
Tributes, tributes, tributes. This place crawls with tributes. The new epitaphs honoring Imagineers who were passed over the first time are welcome, as we said earlier, but PLQ doesn't stop there. The organist's crypt is really a tribute to that beloved character and his banshee ghosts.
The raven is a tribute to that character. What other reason is there for him to be on the organ pipes like that? The organ is labeled "Ravenscroft," a tribute to Thurl. The instruments depicted on the left side are tributes to the Séance circle and the graveyard band, as mentioned earlier. The whack-a-mole books popping in and out on the sides of Prudence's crypt are a tribute to the library scene inside the ride. Wow, did you notice how the decoration around the crypt's "bookcase" lovingly mimics the woodwork of that scene? An elbow is nudging your ribs: "Is this ride cool, or what?"
But it doesn't stop with tributes to things that are there. Carsillo has loaded up PLQ with tributes to things that never were: ideas and artwork that never made it into the Mansion, the kind of stuff we talk about around this blog, the stuff only the geeks know about. There are headstones now for Bartholomew Gore, Beauregard, and Priscilla, names taken from Ken Anderson's old scripts. There are also headstones for Uncle Theodore, Cousin Algernon, Phineas Pock, and Ned Nub. These are the names of four of the singing busts, something that only geeks know about. The one-eyed black cat, a disused idea for a horrific ghost guide that we did a post about awhile back, appears on the side of the organist's crypt. Why is he there? What reason is there for associating that cat with the organist? Isn't it obvious that this was just a convenient spot to stick another "tribute"? Context? What context? We don't need no steeeeenking context. Finally, there are the "Museum of the Weird" tributes, which call for special comment.
A "Tribute" to the Museum of the Weird
The sea serpent around Bertie's neck is a nod to the MoW (even though this creature doesn't look anything like Rolly's MoW artwork, stylistically). The surrealistic musical instruments on the right side of the organ crypt are also "tributes" to the Museum. This is a slap in the face of Walt Disney himself.
Rolly has told this story many times. Everyone at WED thought his strange creations were just too, too weird to use. Everyone but Walt, who looked at them one day as the HM Imagineers were all "displaying their wares" for Walt's inspection. He left without saying anything, and everyone (including Rolly) thought his weird little artifacts were indeed too extreme and had failed the test. Next day, Rolly found Walt himself sitting in his chair, wearing the same clothes. "You SOB," Walt greeted him. He loved Rolly's stuff and had literally stayed up all night trying to figure out a way to use it. It obviously didn't fit in with Marc Davis's material or any of the other work that showed the direction that the HM project was headed, but there had to be a way to use it. Finally, Walt had hit on the idea of a museum, a museum of the weird, a completely separate venue featuring Rolly's work. Sort of a Professor Marvel's show of wonders, filled with objects that mocked the boundary between the natural and the supernatural. And so when the 1965 "tencenniel" television special was filmed, there was Marc with all of his HM stuff over here in this corner, and Rolly's stuff on a table over there in that corner.
It was obvious to Walt that Rolly's and Marc's work belonged in two different environments, that they operated in two different imaginative spheres. It was a serious problem that took him all night to solve.
Silly Walt. If only Carsillo, Goodman, and Ericson had been there to straighten him out. Of course all of that stuff goes together. See? You just put musical instruments out of Davis's playbook on the left side of the crypt, and slap some surreal instruments out of Rolly's playbook on the other. Ta da.
If anyone scratches his head over these weird instruments, or the cat, or the odd names on the tombstones, you say, "They're tributes!" and that's supposed to be enough logic to hold them all together. Of course, only the cognizati will get those esoteric ones, so what that material really amounts to is Carsillo repeatedly sending signals to the hardcore Mansionites: "Hey guys, look, I'm one of you!" It makes no other sense and serves no other purpose. For me, what John Livingston Lowes said about poetry applies to other creative offerings as well: "I dislike poems that black your eyes, or put up their mouths to be kissed."
Tributes, tributes, tributes. Let's have tributes to as many of the original Imagineers as we can think of. And tributes to the wonderful things they made. And tributes to the wonderful things they almost made but didn't. And tributes to the wonderful ideas that they thought were bad and didn't use. And tributes to tributes. Let's stop every four feet and remind ourselves how MUCH we LOVE this ride. In fact, let's spend an enormous sum of money and make that the first act of the ride itself! People...