I wrote this movie review last year, for a potential movie review gig. It’s about that time of the year again…so I thought I’d share:
You Know what I mean?
Basements are low, dank, and darksome,
Halloween’s buried there . . .”
“. . . There the terror is pure.
There an All Hallows grave
Can save souls that might smother
From calm dad or sweet mother.”
—Ray Bradbury, “In-Between: A Halloween Poem”
Ray Bradbury is a storyteller who knows why Halloween, spooks, and frights are important—so is Tim Burton, and he beautifully illustrates the point in his mismatched holiday classic, The Nightmare Before Christmas, now re-released in theaters, for the second year, in 3D. Certainly, the denizens of Halloweentown know, singing, “Life’s no fun without a good scare.”
The story is simplistic, but the best fairytales are. Jack Skellington, the monarch of Halloween, grows bored with scares and screams and seeing the new challenges and excitement of Christmas, commands his subjects to help him take over the execution of that holiday. Not plot driven, Nightmare is a heady visual draught, a Halloween dream woven in images and moods. Roger Ebert praised the original release of the film, saying its creators “made a world here that is as completely new as the worlds we saw for the first time in such films as Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Star Wars.” And indeed, the visuals are so unique that “Burtonesque” is now in the cinema lexicon. The new 3D element makes this phantasmal world even more immersive.
Burton has stated that inspiration came to him at a store changing out the Halloween merchandise for Christmas displays: the juxtaposition of ghouls and Santa—and the best images of the film are the ones mixing Christmas and Halloween, the delightful and the ghastly: a coffin shaped sleigh led by skeletal reindeer, Christmas lights strung about an electric chair, and in no other movie have I seen a character try and discover the true meaning of Christmas by dissecting a teddy bear.
This is what Burton does; he mixes horror and humor and somehow makes it innocent through his favorite medium, the misfit. These elements come together in one of my favorite scenes: Sally, an animated rag doll and secret admirer of Jack, prepares a gift basket for the Pumpkin King and makes ready to escape her abusive creator. Opening the window, she looks wistfully towards Jack’s house, then jumps, crashing several stories below, her body breaking into pieces. Then, just as wistfully, the way a lovesick teenager might pick petals off a lily, she sews herself back together and heads for Jack’s. It’s a neat bit of dialogue-free storytelling. In any other movie, this would have been a tragic scene—a teen suicide for unrequited love. Instead, Burton makes the scene sweet and he does so using the very element that makes it macabre: the fact that Sally is an undead doll that can put herself back together.
Forgiving the simple plot, I have only one complaint: at 76 minutes, I would have liked a little longer to further develop Jack and Sally’s relationship or maybe better develop the villain, Oogie Boogie. I would attribute the short runtime to the extensive and tedious process used to create the stop motion animation (a week’s worth of work reaped only a minute’s worth of film).
After 14 years, the film has aged well, looking dated neither technically nor in style. Actually, pop culture has caught up to its sardonic and subversive tones. For proof, note that the film was originally released under Touchstone Pictures (a division of Disney) for fear that it was too dark for children. In the 2006 3D release (as well as this year), The Nightmare Before Christmas was shown under the Disney banner. For further proof, walk into a Spencer’s or Hot Topic store—there is more Nightmare merchandise circulating than ever and a whole new generation of teenagers have made its cast of monsters into a misfit pantheon (with Jack Skellington at the head).
The media is faster and more fickle than ever. However we also live in a time when canceled TV shows and sleeper films can find a second life, resurrected by the necromancy of cult fans and DVD sales. People walk around with T-shirts featuring their favorite characters from 80s video games. Media fades, but iconic images endure, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is teeming with them.