Thursday, November 19, 2009
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the holiday season is upon us. Like it or not, each year stores start pushing their Christmas wares earlier and earlier. In a couple of decades, we'll probably be stringing lights in July. Despite the overcorporatization of Christmas, I always love the holiday season. No matter how cynical you are, it's tough to not feel even the tiniest bit festive. The music, the lights, the trampling of shoppers on Black Friday. It just makes my heart smile.
The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, did not make my heart smile. Or at least not at the ripe young age of 8 upon its theatrical release. It gave me not only the Nightmare before Christmas but also the Nightmare on Christmas and for about three weeks afterward. It's pretty safe to say all my Christmas cheer evaporated the second I saw that stop-motion animated child pull a severed head out of its gift box. I don't even celebrate Christmas, so I can just imagine the impact it had on those who did.
Now, of course, I recognize that the film is brilliant. It's a pretty magical movie, if you're willing to overlook some of the stomach-turning visuals and sight gags. Literally, the sights made me gag. I have a tiny admission to make, but you have to promise not to share this information. It's classified. Can we pinky-swear on this? Great, thanks. The truth of the matter is that I have an unnatural fear of stop-motion animation. Between this movie and James and the Giant Peach, I maybe got four hours of sleep between 1993-1996. Whew, I'm glad I got that one off my chest. Seriously though. If you ever so much as flicked a camera on and off between frames, I was not watching it. Period.
Somewhere around 16 I finally conquered my fear and watched The Nightmare Before Christmas the whole way through. I adored it, but I can certainly see why Disney pushed to release it under the guise of its Touchstone label. The movie is pretty unsettling, overall. It's dark--both visually and thematically--and it's a little heavy for children. Against the backdrop of upbeat Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, Nightmare was definitely the odd one out in their animation offerings. While the other Disney films were touting feel-good just-be-yourself messages, Nightmare had a much darker message on hand.
When I watch the trailer now, I marvel at the wondrous world created through the magical minds of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman, the respective visual and musical geniuses behind the film. When I saw the trailer back in '93, I'm pretty sure my only reaction was "AHHHHHH!" It may also have involved running out of the theater, hysterical crying, and the eventual breathing into a paper bag.
The movie opens on "the holiday worlds of old" with a fairy tale air of mystery and enchantment in the voice-over. It segues quickly the the impaling of pumpkins on spears and monsters lurking under the stairs in the apt setting of Halloween Town. Their Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, leads them in the Halloween festivities during which the residents of Halloween Town rejoice in their scaring antics. We soon learn that Jack's grown tired of his lot in fright-inducing life in "Jack's Lament":
While wandering Halloween Town's forests, Jack accidentally slips through the conveniently local space/time continuum into a mysteriously cheerful place called Christmas Town. The whole place is aglow with twinkly little lights, ice skaters frolic around a giant pine, elves sing cheerfully from their racing sleds. Jack is confused by the warmth and feeling of Christmas Town and its contrast to the horrifying head-throwing pastimes of Halloween Town.
Though he does not completely understand what exactly he's seen, Jack presents his discovery to his fellow Halloween Town residents. Halloween Town is, on the whole, not impressed. They point out everything awesome about their own beloved holiday and have complete tunnel vision against the happiness and joy of Christmas Town. Tough Luck, Jackie.
Despite their disinterest, Jack becomes completely obsessed with Christmas and hatches a plan to kidnap Santa and take his place. Sounds pretty foolproof, right? I really can't imagine any way this plan could possibly go awry.
Because it's a Tim Burton movie, we're to believe a crazed scientist (awesomely named Dr. Finklestein) cobbled together and then brought to life a rag doll who begins to develop romantic stirrings for Jack. Then again, we're in a magical Halloween-themed town teeming with spooky bats and roaming mummies, so that's probably the most realistic of our plot points. The movie allows you the luxury of complete suspension of disbelief, as you find yourself wanting to believe that it might just be the right thing to kidnap "Sandy Claws" and replace him with a blood-chilling skeletor. In the context of Halloween Town, it almost makes sense. This rag doll chick, Sally, has a vision that Jack's plan will end disastrously and attempts to warn him of the dangers of his Christmas-stealing mission.
Ignoring his fellow townspeople's ambivalence, Jack eagerly assigns new and exciting Christmas roles to his neighbors. They still don't totally get it, so you've got to admire their stick-to-itness.
Jack thinks crazy kids Lock, Shock, and Barrel (voiced by Paul Rebeuns, aka PeeWee Herman) would make excellent accomplices and enlists them to kidnap Mr. Sandy Claws:
Again, they're not totally on board with the real spirit of Christmas Jack is so adamant they find. Instead of bringing him back, they bring Santa to the even crazier Oogie Boogey. Oogie's a bit of a gambling man, and he's not against implicating our buddy Santa into his irresponsible debauchery.
Jack is one of those misguided good-intentioned saps that just won't quit. He boards his coffin sleigh and rounds up his skeletal reindeer, eager to do Santa's good work. He doesn't quite know what the children of the world will want, so he's pretty sure shrunken heads and poisonous reptiles will do the trick. Done and done. Sally, on the other hand, is not so pleased with the way things are turning out, especially regarding the increasing levels of dementia enacted by her would-be beau. Catherine O'Hara does not disappoint as Sally, though it's no A Mighty Wind.
The people of the world realize that there's an impostor Santa polluting their skies and filling their stockings with terrifying trinkets. The army shoots down his sleigh, after which Jack is presumed dead (or deader, I guess, considering he's already just a skeleton). Jack quickly realizes he needs to set things right, free the real Santa, and enjoy his own lot in life as the Pumpkin King. A quick revelation, sure, but this is a Disney film so it's all par for the animated course.
On their way to set things straight, Sally is captured by the vile Oogie. In an oddly chivalrous act, Jack acts even viler and breaks apart Oogie's outer shell to reveal the revolting insects inside. Excuse me, I'm going to go vomit. Be right back. Okay, still here? Anyway, Santa gives them a harsh talking-to before going on his gift mission, but gives them some happy snow to show that he's not holding a grudge. All seems to be as it was again, with the added bonus of a brewing Sally and Jack romance. I never thought I'd say a fictitious romantic affair between a skeleton and living rag doll would be adorable, but the movie really sells it.
Nightmare manages to be all sorts of contradictory things at once, both sweet and vile, sentimental and cruel, cute and frightening. It's Tim Burton's unbridled imagination at its best, giving us a well-developed fantasy world to scare and delight us. His signature style and attention to detail makes it almost like a real world all unto its own. Which is probably why I was so scared of it in the first place. I hope the ensuing nightmares are enough to tide you over until his version of Alice in Wonderland debuts next year. Then you'll get a whole slew of new things to fear. Until then, though, just enjoy the Nightmare.