AKA Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick
FEATURING: Voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Ken Page
PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries to recreate it, with ghoulish results.
WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.
COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.
The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs. She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?
The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.
Related: Alfred Eaker’s A Few Odd Yuletide Favs.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[Burton] pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination — where the real nightmares are. But through Burton’s eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren’t bad places at all. In fact, they’re quite wonderful.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)