Jack Skellington, Go Home
In October 1993, while I was suffering through a painful breakup, I saw Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on its opening night. I thought the stop-motion animated film — then a rare box-office failure for Disney, now beloved by two generations — to be inventive and fresh and delightful to look at, even as it wreaked havoc on my emotions. It made me deliriously happy because Jack Skellington found romance and rediscovered his life’s passion, and it made me profoundly sad because my own Sally was at our apartment packing her glad rags. In any case, “Nightmare” made me feel something real, and I’ve never forgotten that.
Seventeen years later, “Nightmare” is an industry. It gave Disney an opening into the chain wallets of Generation Y, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead wearing Disney crap (though the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies and a massive Tinker Bell marketing push has since changed that), and it keeps Hot Topic in business. In 2006, Disney paid for the film to be converted to 3-D so they could reissue it to theaters every Halloween — and the millennials pay to see it, even though they own the Blu-Ray. “Nightmare” is beloved in a way the studio probably wishes “Lilo & Stitch,” “Atlantis” and “Bolt” could be. No one needs to be told why to like “Nightmare’s” characters. You just feel it.
“Nightmare’s” influence is also felt at Disney’s theme parks. Every year since 2001, Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” attraction has been transformed into “Haunted Mansion Holiday,” a seasonal attraction inspired by Burton and Selick’s characters. For those of you who haven’t yet experienced it, I’ll explain it in brief: About a month before Halloween, the “Nightmare” character are placed throughout the attraction in human-sized representations that range from painted wood cutouts to full Audio-Animatronic figures. (Jack Skellington and Oogie Boogie figures make appearances, and are voiced by the original film actors.)
A cacophonous mash-up soundtrack of public domain Christmas carols and Danny Elfman’s “Nightmare” songs replaces the Mansion’s theme song, the catchy “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Normally dark and muted, “Haunted Mansion” is re-lit in garish colors, and the attraction’s gorgeous sets are littered with cartoonish props and scrims. Its soundtrack, a masterpiece of sonic design, is destroyed by those goddamn “la la la’s” that Elfman loves so much. Frankly, it’s kind of horrible.
If you’re a massive “Nightmare Before Christmas” fan, “Haunted Mansion Holiday” is probably worth seeing once or twice. I could even stomach an annual six-to-ten-week run; I could simply plan my Disneyland trips to miss it. However, “Haunted Mansion Holiday” long overstays its welcome, running from late September through mid-January. A third of a year is too long a time for a bunch of temporary sets and overlays to occupy an attraction that wasn’t intended to support a second storyline. Just as Nightmare’s Jack Skellington took over Christmas and ruined it through good intentions, so Disneyland does with one of its best attractions for just over a third of each year.
The Haunted Mansion isn’t a beginning-to-end storytelling experience like “Pirates of the Caribbean.” It’s more of a lucid dream. From the moment you enter the stretching room and are addressed by the “Ghost Host,” voiced by the great Paul Frees (“Your cadaverous pallor portrays an aura of foreboding…”), to your fleeting last look at the ghostly bride near the attraction’s exit (“…Hurry back! We’ve been dying to have you”), you are consumed by a kind of … amused unease; I guess that’s what you’d call it. It’s the same kind of feeling you get from watching a really good horror movie with a group of friends.
One great director of such films, Guillermo del Toro, has expressed interest in making a movie based on “Haunted Mansion.” If I loved the work of the “Pan’s Labyrinth”/“Hellboy” director before now, I love it twice as much knowing that if his movie is successful, as it surely will be, we’ll never see the “Nightmare” characters polluting the attraction again.
So, yeah, I’m not a fan. By supplanting “The Haunted Mansion’s” wry gallows humor with “Nightmare’s” characters and visualizations, Disney under-delivers on both experiences: You get something that’s not as good as a dedicated “Nightmare Before Christmas” dark ride, and “Mansion “is diminished. And I feel neither happy nor sad when I go on “Haunted Mansion Holiday.” All I feel is impatience, knowing that I’m stuck with this noise until Jack Skellington finally gets bored and goes home.