Thursday, February 22, 2024

Walt Disney, part XLIV: I'm bored from leering my horrible glances, and my feet hurt from dancing those skeleton dances


Directed by Henry Selick
Written by Caroline Thompson, Michael McDowell, and Danny Elfman (based on the poem by Tim Burton)

Spoilers: moderately highish, I guess

There is nothing I could say to take away from the reputation of the great mall goth masterpiece, The Nightmare Before Christmas, nor would I want to, for it has made many people happy over the years, in its heyday becoming no less than a foundational text for the kind of young adult who might or might not actually be interesting, but who would, at the least, be boring in such a way that they'd be a lot likelier to have a smoke I could bum.  I myself have never had what you'd call a stable relationship to the film: I saw it in theaters and recall enjoying it very much, but over the intervening thirty yearsand I've seen this movie at least six times in that periodI have gone manically back and forth on it, either startled that I don't even like it, or surprised to once again think it's great.  This does not bode well for any analysis of the film, I suppose, but something happened to clarify things: I in fact watched it twice for this review, and when I watched it that second time, it was with Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Danny Elfman's commentary track, thereby reducing the story to only that which could be conveyed visually, while blotting out virtually every sound in the filmwhich is, incidentally, a musicaland I kind of liked it more that way.

Well, after that, there's probably no one left, but we have a procedure and procedure is important, so on to how this fits into a Disney animation retrospective.  By now in the historiography of Nightmare, the tradition is to begin by correcting some imaginary reader who's still under the impression that it's "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," this being an impression you could reasonably get from the title that it's frequently been marketed under, in recognition of the fact that of its three principals Burton's was, even by 1993, by far the biggest brand name.  But (as I'm sure you, a non-imaginary reader, already know), it was actually directed by promethean stop-motion animator Henry Selick, his first and career-defining feature film after a really long time on the more esoteric fringes of animation, whereas Burton was barely even a proper producer on it, extremely busy with Batman Returns and Ed Wood, and able to spend only a few days visiting Selick's studio in San Francisco during Nightmare's entire production.

The idea that it's therefore really Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas has become common currency, so it's worth gently pushing back on that a little and finding some happier middle ground that acknowledges the authorship of bothbecause if pressed to choose only one, I would go with Burton, because even if he didn't make Nightmare, it came out of his head, and by turning it into a musical, he oriented the project towards something that belongs as much to Burton's trusty composer, Elfman, as to either Selick or himself.  At the same time, Selick very much subordinated himself to "doing a Burton."  Indeed, he did it so hard that "the Selickian" and "the Burtonesque" become difficult to disentangle afterwards, despite Selick's pre-Nightmare directorial work being some avant-garde shit that doesn't even quite share a vibe with Burton's stuff, though Selick's most recent effort as of 1993, the great (shall we say "nightmarish"?) 1991 short he did with MTV's backing, "Slow Bob In the Lower Dimensions," is, simultaneously, plainly the work of a talent that someone like Burton would want in his corner, as well as pretty solid evidence of how completely Selick's priorities as an artist got submerged.  I cannot speak to Selick's entire career to come, but it's noticeable that Selick's tendency throughout that career has been to carry forward the Burtonisms he picked upas well as to keep getting himself into projects with overpowering partners and source material authors, starting with Nightmare and continuing with Neil Gaiman on Coraline and Jordan Peele on Wendell & Wild (what I presume to be his best and worst movies, respectively).  So it'll be interesting to see how that tendency functions with James and the Giant Peach, where at least Roald Dahl was dead.

Anyway, it started with a poema parody of "A Visit From St. Nicholas"which Burton wrote in 1982 while he was working at Disney, where he'd first made Selick's acquaintance.  The poem concerned a certain Jack Skellington, a skeleton in a scary tuxedo and the king of Halloween, who stole Christmas, though not in a Grinchlike fashion, but rather so Jack, bored of Halloween, could be Santa and usurp his place in the holiday cosmology.  The first phase of Jack's plan comes off well enough (he has his hench-trick-or-treaters kidnap the jolly old elf), but Jack and his associates are so naturally and effortlessly malevolent that, instead of being toasted with milk and cookies, they only wind up ruining Christmas for the entire planet, by replacing the traditional holiday cheer with the monstrosities that they have, inevitably, confused with good presents for good boys and girls.  Yet Jack learns his lesson and comes away satisfied with his adventure.

The idea had been rattling around Burton's brain since his childhood in Burbank, CA, where in the absence of the natural markers of what we normal people call "seasons," such as snow or temperature fluctuations, he became excessively attached to the artificial signifiers of the yearly cycle, particularly his favorite holiday, Halloween, and his second-favorite holiday (unless it's the reverse), Christmas.  One year, he witnessed one of his lazy-ass neighbors (or perhaps just a psychotically-over-eager-for-Christmas neighbor, as he doesn't mention a specific date) directly replacing their Halloween decorations with Christmas ones, so that for a day they merged on a large enough scale to impress him.  And thus Burton's poem's darkly zesty little subversion of the holiday, and when Burton showed it around, one of his few true-blue allies at Disney, sculptor Rick Heinrichs, helped him realize some of the likewise-darkly-zesty visuals he'd come up with, in the vain hope that Disney would produce it as a short or special.  Unfortunately, after Burton and Heinrichs's 1982 stop-motion short, "Vincent"despite a widespread recognition of its excellenceand especially after Burton's live-action 1984 short "Frankenweenie," it had become evident that Burton was not what was then considered Disney material.

Don't cry for Burton, for obviously he landed on his feet (and "Burton and Disney at odds" is one Goddamned quaint notion today).  By 1991 he could approach Disney from a position of strength and cultural cachet, whereas Disney itself was also different: Jeffrey Katzenberg (although direct authority over the project devolved to Mark Hoberman) welcomed Burton and his hand-picked director, Selick, I expect because if they were successful, they would help burnish Disney's reputation as the leader in animation in the 1990s (while if they were not, they could be easily disavowed).  Burton's proposal didn't even require any of WDFA's resources, just money and distribution.

So did the studio synonymous with cel animation fund what would become probably the single most sophisticated work of stop-motion animation yet made, drawing upon the talent of the whole transatlantic body of stop-motion animators; and at once it represented something of a close of an era, as one of the last major stop-motion films to be made without significant CGI assistance (though even then I doubt Nightmare could have been made without the analogous advances in computerized camera control) as well as the beginning of a new one, one that redefined stop-motion away from the stereotype of rickety charm that it had picked up over the last several decades thanks to Rankin/Bass, especially the Rankin/Bass Christmas films.  The dual association of the form with Christmas as well as with creature creation was surely one reason why Burton was, by 1991, set on stop-motionit was probably always his first choice, though he'd have taken anything in 1982.  The other, though neither Burton nor Selick would be likely to say so because no artist wants to pigeonhole the medium they work in, is that stop-motion is just inherently spooky, regardless of subject.  After all, even good stop-motion is jutterier and less smooth than merely-decent hand-drawn animationor later, fully-rendered CGIand even middling stop-motion, through the tangibility of the real objects to which it grants an illusion of movement, unavoidably conjures something that already feels supernatural, requiring very little extra push to get that up to feeling like horror.

"A darkly zesty subversion of the holiday," I called it before, but that also means that Nightmare was ever an idea in search of a story, and that's a problem which the transformation of Burton's poem into Elfman's musical helped camouflage, but which never got truly solved.  Hypothetically, the movie had other writers besides Elfman; but those writers' chief goal was always just to beef this poem up to 75 minutes of screentime.  The core remains almost untouched, then: we still have our Jack, "played" by an astoundingly superfluous Chris Sarandon on the rare occasion that Jack is not being portrayed by his singing voice, none other than Elfman himself.  Jack goes through the poem's beatshe reveals to us his Halloween ennui, he wanders out into the woods beyond Halloweentown, he finds a door to Christmastown, and hatches his scheme to replace Santathough these beats are also stretched out, and become less impulsive on Jack's part, to the point that it becomes modestly confusing for us how exactly Christmas still manages to confuse him.  But as far as this goes, Nightmare offers to Jack a strong arc that actually feels slightly distinctive from the poem, which was more about bringing Christmas spirit to Halloweentown; that theme that is dutifully preserved here, but it winds up being more pointedly about Jack coming to terms with his identity and function in this world, as the source of the pain and fear that makes any comfort and joy possible.

With caveats, that's awesome.  It's also not even close to the whole movie, and the rest is just a bunch of stuff, where exceedingly little of it is anywhere close to as good as Jack, nor as cleanly-conceived.  So: there's Halloweentown's venal mayor (Glenn Shadix) with, get this, two faces (hur hur, good one, Gen Xer!) that whirl around his conical head, largely at random, since rarely do these two faces (one apple-cheeked and friendly, the other pallid and saw-toothed) demonstrate any difference in personality or even different emotional states.  There's the irritatingly shallow and tacked-on romantic subplot involving Sally (Catherine O'Hara), about a sewn-together Frakensteinian doll (albeit stuffed with leaves instead of flesh), and she only intersects with the main plot because she's long-since loved Jack from afar, though in the absence of almost literally any interaction with Jack, I can't say why.  He barely knows who she is, and he doesn't care that her creator keeps her enslaved (which is one of the surprisingly few ways Halloweentown feels "evil," so I guess I shouldn't complain).  Her character's actual function in the story, however, is to be a frowny, moralizing scold about every last fun thing that Jack ever does, and so without even a reason for her to respect him, the obsession that persists in spite of this feels less romantic than like a pathetic starfucking crush.  Whereas when it comes to the aforementioned uncleanliness of conception, Sally's a Frankensteinian bride who also has visions of the future, more-or-less openly because this is the only way to oil the plot wheels of her conflict with Jack, though I have some suspicion that the conflict itself exists primarily just to put her on a path to conjuring the fog necessary to set up an obligatory Rudolph gag.

It's a shame, because she's attached to the strongest of Halloweentown's concepts besides Jack, Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey), the mad scientist who created Sally to serve as wife and/or servant, and who only exists in what amounts to a C-plot, or even a D-plot, but at least makes up for that by serving as a vehicle for a disproportionate number of the movie's neatest stray kid's horror notions.  So not only is he responsible for everything that's ever interesting about Sally, though this is the case, but also his own cool, icky stuff, effected principally by the visual gags around the film's single most wonderfully Burtonesque conceit, a mad scientist with access to his own brain by way of his cranium's flippable lid, allowing a nice joke at the end that, amusingly in its undramatic shrug, effectively solves Sally's story without needing Sally's input.  Oh, but then there's Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), the film's villain, in a film that already has onein case you didn't notice, the villain is Jackwho's the single least-cleanly-conceived of the lot.  His deal is that, in a manner that is never quite articulated, he's too evil for what is, basically, already hell.  And whatever, films need action, so my actual complaint is that his deal, conceptually, is that he's a sackcloth full of bugs and somehow this was wasn't enough, so he's also, uh, a PSA about the dangers of, ahem, gambling and jazz.  Presumably this is because once you start rolling down the path of being inspired by 20s, 30s, and 40s horror cartoons about sinners going to hell and the like, as this is, you pick up all kinds of ideas, whether they're germane or not.

So it's very messy, and none of that is even the problem.  BecauseI know, I'm sorrythe problem is the musical Elfman made.  I love Oingo Boingo; I love Elfman's film scores; I kind of hate this, which is neither.  It's a film with eleven songs in 75 minutes, occupying what I've seen described as "almost" half of those minutes, though thanks to Elfman's deliberate decision to embed them into speak-sung connective tissue to avoid the traditional musical trope of stopping the movie for the musical numbers, it feels like so much more.  It's too much more.  I fully realize that you can point to any number of musical features to contradict my impressions here, but, you know, fuck you, they all sound the same.  "This Is Halloween," "Jack's Lament," and "What's This," the film's first three songsregarding an introduction to Halloweentown, the revelation of Jack's boredom with Halloweentown, and his ecstasy over discovering Christmas, respectivelyare practically all joined together and barely manage to convey different moods.  Plus I just don't like them, nor most of their fellows: Elfman's music comes across more as a parody of showtunes than actual showtunes ("What's This" being an especially egregious offender), replete with Elfmanisms that aren't integrated very well and are never allowed to grimly soar; Elfman's lyrics, meanwhile, have the most desperate time managing enough throughput to relate what amounts to the entirety of the movie's plot, characters, and world-building, so meter is all over the damn place and there's the persistent suggestion that Elfman earnestly believes that a "slant rhyme" only means "two words that both possess vowels and consonants."  Worst of all, maybe, while it's not a sung-through musical, it's close enoughElfman has called it a "three-penny opera"and so it's as good (or, given the consensus on the film, as bad) an example as I could offer as to why I'm so hostile to the sung-through form.  The exact thing Elfman wanted to preventcharacters breaking out into song to emphasize a new plot or emotional developmentis also the exact thing this story most urgently needs.

And so there's only three songs that I think rise above the mire: "Oogie Boogie's Song" is at least distinctive (and benefits, downright unfairly, from the blacklight staging that briefly makes his den of iniquity the single most distinctive set in the film); "Sally's Song" manages an emotional hook even if I don't buy those emotions; and "Kidnap the Sandy Claws," sung by Jack's picked agents, is the only one that I think is actually good, probably because it doesn't actually have a plot function, existing solely to provide a joyful list of the horrible things the hench-kids are going to do to St. Nick when they get him.  It's also one of the few spots in the movie that feels even slightly edgy (I mean, I've seen this movie many times, but I constantly misremember that someone accidentally kills Santa, because I want it to have more real nastiness); but, yeah, it's worth mentioning, somewhere, that despite Nightmare being released by Touchstone, because it was too dark and scary for "Disney" branding, this is sanded way down in comparison to Burton and Selick's earlier stuff, or even to things that did have Disney's name on them.  At least I don't think it's all that contentious to claim that The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, for instance, are more meaningfully "dark and scary."

So now that I've pissed in your cereal and then knocked the bowl in your lap, you can see why I'd say that watching it without sound kind-of, sort-of improved it.  It was always obvious enough, but now I really comprehend, with my heart, what still holds me fast to Nightmare, in spite of being a dipshit contrarian about it.  Because fundamentally, it's not a story, nor a bunch of tedious Elfman songs that the professional singer isn't even singing all that well.  It's a collection of visual ideas scraped out of the stripey, toothy, spindly imagination of a visual artist at the height of his powers, augmented by the ministrations of one of the greatest technical talents to ever work in his particular field, who had a macabre and morbid streak of his own.

It's a striking combo: everything is so goth and cool and grossI don't have much use for Sally-the-character, but Sally-the-thing-Tim-Burton-jerks-off-to, sureand basically everything is a winner in terms of its design and animation, all the way into the depths of its tertiary cast.  The film starts off with a statement of purpose, a montage of these monsters, that demanded slithery, serpentine camera movements into and through the setseven underneath objects inside the setsand so sixty seconds in, Nightmare is already showing some of the most advanced stop-motion ever seen up until that point in time, punched up with some shockingly plausible effects animation (a fair amount of 2-D animation on ghosts and whatnot, and I'm not quite sure how they got "fire" to work the way it does) alongside just enough jank (everyone knows how they got the "water" to work because you can make out the fabric textures) to give it that desired stop-motion heebie-jeebie feel; and this innovation and sense of gusto never really stops.  Oogie Boogie is unnecessary, but I don't think I would give up his nauseating finale for anythinghundreds of manhours for two wonderful seconds of shivers.  And Jack is amazing, a 20s horror cartoon skeleton who practically shouldn't have been able to existit was actually difficult to build an armature to Burton's delicate stick-figure specsyet built with unheard-of possibilities for movement and expression, and designed in a way that he's always fun-scary, but a tiny bit legitimately-scary too, with my second-favorite small thing in the movie being any moment where Jack is fully lit, so that the reality of the black emptiness of his eye sockets really hits you.  (Hence "amazing," but not perfect: my biggest complaint about the entire move, no matter what else I've said, might just be that Jack, the fleshless, eyeless skeleton, still blinks.  It's not only that it's kind of stupid, though it assuredly is; it's that it makes him altogether too human, compromising the essential monstrousness that I like the most about him, and, frankly, making his emotions too easy.)

But I might not even call Jack the best part, when the design of the worldor rather, the three worldsis this good: we spend most of our time in Halloweentown, so it is by necessity the best and most well-explored, swinging from a bleak, decay-filled autumnal netherworld in its daytime that, somehow, kind of feels spookier than its nights, which at least have that iconic supermoon that looks about to crash into the planet to give it glamor; the freakish angles and tentacle-like curves in the expressionist touches are all beautiful, and my very favorite small thing in the movie, that's present enough to be a big thing to me, is the textures of the landscape, raked in such a way that the entire world becomes a three-dimensional woodcut about unwholesome witchery in a book we oughtn't be reading.  Hence Christmastown is a little weak and weenie-ish in comparison, with its Christmas colors and sparkling snow and tiny elves, but it's nicely juxtaposed while still having that "implausibly-budgeted kid's holiday special" feel the whole film does.  The real world is "quotidian" but in ways that still have a Burton warp to it, right angles appearing in number for the first time, but with, for example, a marked tendency for the children to be ugly mutants; and all this is in service to some great gags about a jerk jerking up a bunch of innocent people's Christmases.  So I would like to call The Nightmare Before Christmas a masterpiece like everybody else does: the artistry of its construction gets it closer than it maybe even deserves.

Score: 7/10


  1. Another Kinemalogue banger.

    I really need to give the commentary track a listen. I did listen to Caroline Thompson's podcast interview on Script Apart where she talked about her role in the film's genesis and it shed some light on the process. Mainly, she claims to have come up with Sally, which kind of makes sense; she's only integrated into the main Jack story a few times, mostly in side scenes or peering in on the action.

    Interesting to hear you so down on the soundtrack overall. I do agree there's some same-ish-ness to it. Like you, I'm partial to "Kidnap the Sandy-Claws." My 6 year old likes it too. Her favorite line is "kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box / bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks"

    1. Thanks Dan! I'm a fair fan of Thompson as a screenwriter (well, I think Welcome to Marwen is great), so I don't know what she'd have been able to do if she'd had real free reign, but Burton, Elfman, and Selick are fairly upfront that her and McDowell's stuff just isn't a lot of the movie. I'm unclear how Elfman doesn't have a writing credit, unless it's a union thing.