Oh sweet, delicious and irresistible animation! Since this is Christmas time, I have decided to join in the holiday spirit and bring out some reviews right from under the mistletoe. And what better one to re-watch and talk about than Tim Burton’s spooky and sweet The Nightmare before Christmas? Despite what the title suggests, this tale that looks exactly as the inside of Burton’s mind would was directed by Henry Selick. This is not to say that Burton is just along for the ride, for this dual-holiday flick was his brainchild, one that he had been nursing ever since he started out of school. Completely filling out the extent of stop-motion, the tale of Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King creates a dreamland you can find yourself getting lost in. Deceivably a children’s movie, it does not escape enjoyment from the young and the old, a great musical that stands the test of time.
Burton creates for us a magical world where each holiday has its own town, each whose lives revolve around its titular spirit. I know I said while starting out that this is a Christmas movie, it is one of those strange things that can be enjoyed twice in a year, both at Christmas and Halloween. Our tale takes place in the spookiest and most gruesome town of them all, a place where pools of blood and werewolves howling into the night are applauded – Halloweentown. In this town resides the people’s icon and hero, the scariest of them all, Jack Skellington. Appearing to be a cross between slenderman and an overly goth baseball, Jack is the life of Halloween and is worshipped by all. As the line goes, all the ladies want him, and all the men want to be him. But deep within, like all of Burton’s leads, the King of Pumpkins is weary and disconnected from human emotion, or in this case, monstrous emotion. Craving to find a different atmosphere than the grotesque, a different colour than oldie horror-grey, he wanders into the spindly woods with his ghostly canine Zero. It is there that he chances upon the neighbouring town of Christmas. Absolutely intrigued and taken in by the glowing lights, the colourful decorations and particularly the snow, Jack decides he must bring this joy to his own people.
A metaphor for very many things, Jack comes up with a plan to bring Christmas to Halloweentown, as it isn’t fair that the Christmas people keep it to themselves. What’s more, he believes he can improve upon it! But sadly, the depraved and maniacal minds of the residents of Halloweentown cannot digest a single joyful thought, and is quite confused by Jack’s presentation. So, through a sequence of the most stick-in-your-head songs, experiments and reading, Jack comes up with a plan to make his townsfolk see Christmas as he did, and take on the task of raining presents and merriment to the world around himself. Oh and there’s a romance brewing behind the scenes too. A very smitten rag-doll Sally, a less-Frankensteinian creation of Dr. Beetlestein, finds herself spellbound by Jack and wants more than anything, for him to know about her and how much they are alike. But Jack has more pressing matters such as the right amount of lights and the presents to think about, so that he may break free from his tradition of horror. What ensues is an elaborately devilish plan to capture the ‘Sandy Claws’ and have the whole town serving as his elves, so that Jack may bring Christmas this year. Once all that is done, and he even has skeletal reindeer to take him gliding through the skies, all goes terribly wrong when the well-meaning presents start scaring the holiday right out of the children. Coming to the conclusion that Christmas is not his forte, he runs back to save a horrified Claus who is caught in the death-trap of the Oogie Boogie, the resident spirit of Halloweentown.
A most unique fairytale, the film that you see today is the product that blossomed out of a single poem authored by Burton in his early days, ironically titled Poem. As magical as the movie that it inspired, here is a recitation of the same, and who to read it than the marvellous Christopher Lee?
It is easy to see a hundred interpretations and meanings behind this Chris-ween tale, as it often is with fairytales. It could very easily be an allegory for cultural appropriation, as a group or individual believes they understand another’s customs and tradition, much like Jack did with Christmas, and it ends up as nothing but spoiled and horrifying gifts. It is a message that it is better to leave such things to the people that know them, rather than feign expertise and ruin the affair for everyone. An interesting metaphor that came to my mind upon viewing it again is that it very aptly describes Burton himself, who was always a true resident of Halloweentown at heart, one with the deliciously macabre and the wonderfully gothic. Looking at his ventures into other ‘towns’ such as the Chocolate Factory and the Planet of the Apes, it seems a reminder to himself that he ought to stay in the world that he knows, and is king of. It may not get him Oscars, and it may not be critic-worthy, but creating dream-like landscapes and nightmarishly fun characters is the Burton thing to do. So this seems to put Tim in the shoes of Skellington, who has come to the realization that his heart belongs to Halloween. I’m certain the thought never entered his mind while stringing together this enchanting tale, but it could very well have been his subconscious at work, warning him of things to come. It’s just an interesting thought.
No matter how many meanings you can find hidden behind those animated figures, I believe personally that the film is best enjoyed at face value, for what it is. And what it is is a brilliantly woven, otherworldly story in a magical land where the songs and the holiday cheer (and horror) blend in a most exquisite mix, that only feels encumbered and cluttered if such philosophical lines are read into it. There are some works that stand out and elate for their layers and deeper sensibilities, and The Nightmare before Christmas is not one of them, holding its own as a whimsical story that knows exactly what it is, and is all the more proud to show it. More than anything, it is as if Burton’s magnificent brain exploded all over the sets of this animation, giving birth to a fantastical Christmas story with horrid creatures who eat slime and frog’s breath, and complete with the quintessential, tall skeletal (a little too literal this time) hero. If there was ever one film to perfectly capture one man’s vision, this is it. Oogie-Boogie, the humongous wormy monster is one of the grooviest villains to ever grace the big screen, with its belly-thumping growl and its morbidly cheerful bellow. Every character is incredibly colourful for being so grim and dead, even the ghosts which dance around the graves.
As I said before, although the vision is his, Burton did not direct this entertaining movie. That’s where Henry Selick comes in. It is he who deserves all the credit for bringing this exotic and at times (okay, a lot of the time) crazy vision to tangibility, and this credit he ought to receive in cartloads. Some of the finest stop-motion animation ever is seen in this twenty-one year old flick, and like good wine it has aged well. Any given scene delivers the striking visuals of the beautiful gothic dream it makes its home in. I do not think there is another film which captures the essence in the very atmosphere and environment of the characters. Selick, a master in his own right, completely understands and uses the magic of stop-motion to bring not only Jack, Sally and Santa, but every single background character, every piece of furniture and even the nature to life. The town seems to have a life of its own, shifting, swaying and making odd noises in the wind. Of course, befittingly, it is the home of all things that go thump in the night, and creak under the bed. Detail and care is not left out of a single piece of the set, every part moving as if an erratic cog in a machine whose imagination can conjure up the strangest things. This is where the re-watchability comes in, as I keep noticing something new or surprising that I hadn’t noticed the previous time, every time I peer into the background.
Indeed a height of creative imagination, The Nightmare before Christmas is the genius work of two madmen, one with a fantastical vision, and the other with the tools to bring it to life. There is more life in these clay (at least I think it is clay) figurines than you can find in most actors on screen. Of course, it always helps if your bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and you can bend them and work them in ways that would give Newton an attack. Jack Skellington, a second cousin to Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, is now undoubtedly a classic fairytale hero, in this spellbinding tale that does not belong in its century, but to the mystical days of the Brothers Grimm. The music is exciting; the images are alluring and magnificent, and the overall effect is but magical. Even considering the undrawn-out romance, there is not one fault I can find in this holiday classic.