No 327 – Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
Director – Henry Selick
It has always been difficult to know when exactly one should watch the Nightmare before Christmas. The Halloween setting means you can realistically play it anytime round late October. But the Christmas theme makes it seem strange. There are, after all certain Christmas films that only work at Christmas. I could watch Die Hard in August and still get the same adrenaline rush, but the Muppet’s Christmas Carol is too steeped in tradition that I’d be unable to enjoy the film without th e other trappings of the season.
Nightmare is certainly seasonal, but which season?
This is why I’ve opted for watching it now. We’re almost exactly half way between Halloween and Christmas which fits the film’s timeline perfectly. We’re neither here nor there when it comes to the events. We just sit nicely in the middle.
I’m a big fan of this film. I saw it at the cinema as a youth and have loved it ever since. It still looks magnificent and the songs and characters are ingenious. There are just a couple of things that need to be mentioned:
1) Although the story and characters are based on an idea Tim Burton had whilst working for Disney, Burton’s role was only as a producer. I went to a Q&A for Coraline and Selick admitted that whilst being very proud of Nightmare he was upset that Disney had hidden his involvement and made it look like Tim Burton had directed. Henry Selick is the master of nightmare based stop motion. Films like James and the Giant Peach or his latest Coraline are fabulously scary at times. And Monkeybone has quite possibly traumatised me for life.
2) It is important to watch this film outside of the context it has fallen into. In the last decade The Nightmare Before Christmas became a visual symbol for an entire Emo generation and Jack and Sally became the ideal couple. The epitome of love. They were name checked by Blink 182 and their faces adorned almost everything in the Brighton Lanes, or Camden, or Hot Topic.
However, neither of these points have any relevance to the film as a story or visually. So let me begin to discuss what I love.
Firstly, the story itself is wonderful. The creatures and monsters of Halloween town decide to have a go at Christmas. It is such a simple concept but allows for so much confusion, the optimism and good intentions of Jack Skellington mixed with the nightmare he creates. Which leads me to the other brave element of the story. The three most genuinely evil characters in Halloween Town (with the exception of the Boogie man, who I’ll discuss later) are Lock, Shock and Barrel, three trick or treating children. Besides them, everyone is painted as kind and lovable and usually a bit dim. Even creatures who represent concepts I genuinely find chilling (the clown with the tearaway face *shudder*) are painted with pathos and kindness. This film works alongside Monsters Inc really. It shows us the monsters in our closets and then shows us they’re not that scary after all.
It also gives us Jack and Sally. Two wonderful wonderful characters. Both of which are hopeless dreamers and both are somewhat sappy. They’re also a couple that could never work live action (which must be one of the many reasons why there still isn’t a live musical of it…) a 10ft stick thin skeleton and a rag doll who frequently falls apart.
Their relationship has just the right level of shyness and flattery. In fact it isn’t till the rescue sequence near the end that you see the tougher side to Jack’s character. As he dodges knives, leaping and diving and kicking ass you realise why he was chosen as King of Halloween (in my head it is a democracy, or at least he has to have superior Halloween skills compared to everyone else) and the power he has. Until then he is quite whiney and insular. Staying within the ideas in his head. You have to love the mild trauma which must follow the children after Jack's Wimsey - being delivered giant man eating snakes or shrunken heads or possessed dolls when they were expecting train sets and bikes.
The world of Halloween is beautifully presented both as a living breathing town but also in palette. This is a world painted in a very dull palette of greys and dirty muted browns with only the occasional vibrant splash of orange. Each world is then given its own visual identity. Be it the greys and browns of Halloween, the natural tones of the human world or the vibrant primary colours of Christmas Town.
It is a really easy way to show the contrasts between the worlds and to help set our scene.
It isn’t just the set pieces which have their own visual identity, the whole film does. This is down to Tim Burton’s sketches and art style but also to the very honest medium of Stop Motion animation.
This is what I mean by honest, look at the Mayor. When ever he speaks, check the edges of the plate that contains his mouth. I love that you can see the slight changes that mark every frame. It is gloriously lo-fi and it is a big thing that we lose in CGI. So thank the heavens for people like Henry Selick and Nick Park who still champion it.
The most impressive bit is one of the later sequences, the torture of Santa by Oogie Boogie. I think Oogie Boogie is supposed to be the bogey man but is actually a surprisingly savage sentient sack of bugs.
His home is a garish casino. Each area lit with black lights to give that neon UV look. Oogie Boogie’s song brings out a jazzy glamour reminiscent to Disney’s output in the 60’s. Only this is a song about killing Santa. In fact all the songs are excellent and contrast so well. The eerie introduction of This is Halloween couldn't be any more different to the plinky plonky joy of Whats This? - but they all work together. I think this is Danny Elfman's best work (though I think I said that for Batman) - Certainly trounces his songs in Corpse Bride.
Visually, my favourite part is the end... Oogie fails and his sack is ripped open leaving the bugs screaming and tumbling into a drain. All I can think of is the sheer amount of time the sequence must have taken to animate it. The little bugs all moving individually. It is amazing.
I am such a geek