(Every month, we at The Spool select one Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. With Tim Burton’s Dumbo coming out in just a few weeks, we’ve chosen to dedicate March to Hot Topic’s favored son, and his intriguing, singular body of work.)
Before we start, some music to set the mood.
Now that Danny Elfman’s eerie, catchy and eerily catchy tune is stuck in your head, let’s talk Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s gorgeous stop-motion fable The Nightmare Before Christmas. As far as Burton goes, I’m most familiar with the films he made in the first decade of the 2000s. Those are a mixed bag, ranging from the very enjoyable Corpse Bride to the eye-shriveling Alice in Wonderland. Prior to this, I had only seen The Nightmare Before Christmas – regarded as one of Burton’s finest hours (almost literally, as it runs a brisk 76 minutes) in filmmaking once, all the way back in high school. I was most familiar with Jack Skellington, Sally and company from their appearances in the Disney/Square Enix Kingdom Hearts video game series. It’s fun to fight alongside Jack, but the Kingdom Hearts take on Nightmare is (by design) more about the movie’s characters interacting with the game’s characters than anything else. So, when the opportunity came to revisit The Nightmare Before Christmas with more experienced eyes than I had in high school, I jumped. For all that I’m muted on most of the Burton I’ve seen, I’m really glad I did. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a treat.
The most striking thing about Nightmare? It knows how to juggle all the myriad sorts of scary. Halloween Town’s denizens are a gleefully ghastly and morbid bunch, living to scare and shock. The Clown with the Tear-Away Face, a member of the ensemble, hides an endless void inside his hollow head. Doctor Finklestein (William Hickey), the local mad scientist, thinks nothing plucking out half his brain to build a partner or scratching it when he’s thinking. Heroine Sally (Catherine O’Hara) takes full advantage of being a rag doll Bride of Frankenstein, calmly sewing her limbs back on with the needle she keeps in her head after a great fall or letting them roam free when she needs to distract someone. Jack (Chris Sarandon) is introduced at the height of “This is Halloween,” setting himself on fire and emerging none the worse for wear (he also has a splendid evil laugh). They’re an unsettling crowd, and that’s part of what makes them so lovable – they love being disturbing, love getting a good scare. It’s what they live for, and it makes them a blast to watch.
Director Selick and Burton contrast the joyful creepiness of Halloween Town with sharper scares elsewhere. The loneliness and depression that drive Jack to try and take over Christmas have weight to them in the contrast between Jack’s polite face in public and the greyness that pervades his private moments. His later glee at the thought of handling Christmas blinds him to the fact that he’s fixating on the trappings of the holiday as the chief thing, rather than on what he felt when witnessing the denizens of Christmas Town preparing for the big day. His misunderstanding, combined with Halloween Town’s penchant for going with the spooky whenever possible, results in families who’d been excited to celebrate Christmas instead spending it locked in their rooms, cowering in fear of borderline homicidal “toys.” It’s both funny and a bit distressing – were it not for Santa’s lightspeed intervention, Jack’s Christmas might have ended badly, and as it is, it almost does anyway when the military get involved.
Between the cheerful terror of hanging out with Halloween Town’s residents, the more grown-up-targeted moments focusing on Jack’s depression, and the calamitous Halloween Town-style Christmas, all of Nightmare’s scares are good-hearted. To paraphrase John Goodman in Joe Dante’s wonderful coming-of-age picture Matinee, at the end of the credits the world is still spinning both on screen and in the real world. It is fun to be scared, to feel a rush of adrenaline, to recognize and understand what unsettles and why it does so. Burton, Selick and their collaborators shape Nightmare into a celebration of that feeling, capping it with the connection and grace that a still moment in Christmas snow can bring. It’s a celebration made all the more potent by its contrast with the one unambiguously wicked person in Halloween Town – Ken Page’s Oogie Boogie.
Where Jack wants to bring something new to Halloween Town, Oogie Boogie wants to celebrate his own magnificence. Where Halloween Town folks scare people for fun – both theirs and the folks they’re scaring. Oogie Boogie hurts people for fun, whether through cruel taunts or full-blown death traps. Where Jack can admit and accept failure and wrongdoing on his part, Oogie Boogie refuses to stop even as he falls to pieces. Make no mistake, he’s got a terrific villain song, and he’s fun to watch, but he’s dangerous and threatening in a way that no one else in the film is – and Nightmare is all the stronger for it.
By stepping back from his work to a degree by collaborating with Selick and by working in a medium – stop motion – that requires care and precision, Burton curbs his worst instincts and excesses as a storyteller and filmmaker and as a result, The Nightmare Before Christmas stands tall (and bony). It’s going to keep standing well past tomorrow.