Tim Burton has had a long and tumultuous relationship with Disney. A CALArts student, he was drafted to Disney to create artwork for The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. But after creating shorts Vincent and Frankenweenie (the live action one), Burton was fired for his seemingly non-Disney, auteur perspective. Keep in mind, this is the same Disney company at the time that fired John Lasseter, sent the animation team to a trailer lot, and drove away Don Bluth.
It wasn’t until after the successes of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Batman where Burton not only gained a name for himself, but remembered the dark, twisted holiday poem he wrote while still working at Disney…the poem they owned the rights to. Burton asked his animator friend Henry Selick to direct the project, since he himself was too wrapped up in Batman Returns to devote much time to the project. But why did Disney change their mind? Basically, Who Framed Roger Rabbit inspired them to try something new, creative, and innovative. Go figure.
Since The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton’s celebrity status has flickered, mostly from his hit-or-miss projects throughout the rest of the nineties and aughts, but it wasn’t until 2010 with the release of Alice in Wonderland where he became Disney’s star again. Sure, it has a 52% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but hey, who can argue with $1.025 billion at the box office? Of course, its 2016 sequel, Alice Through the Looking Glass, tanked with a spectacular thud, Frankenweenie in 2012 only did okay, but at least we got his adaptation of Dumbo to look forward to!
Okay, let’s reel it back to his iconic 1993 film and Hot Topic fodder, The Nightmare Before Christmas. So scare up some snacks, sidle up to your Sally, and scream like the son of a salamander you are!
The plot: In Halloween Town, the holiday we celebrate is created by the citizens of the surreal suburb. Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King, the honorary master of ceremonies and town hero, but he’s been feeling unfulfilled lately, tired of the monotony of the holiday. He accidentally wanders out of town and stumbles into Christmas Town, where everything is so jarringly bright, cheerful, and magical.
Jack returns, eager to share what he found, but the town has trouble understanding a holiday that isn’t based on fear, grossness, or surprise. Jack laments that no one understands, but since he himself doesn’t quite grasp the nature of Christmas, he devotes days trying to unravel the mystery, coming to the conclusion that they give Santa a year off and take on Christmas themselves. How can a world of monsters and creatures, ones who don’t entirely understand the holiday, make Christmas?
How’s the writing? It’s cute.
The songs make up 60 – 70% of the movie, making a huge chunk of this movie Danny Elfman’s. Since it was inspired by the holiday specials of yore and the famous A Visit from St. Nicholas poem, it transparently mimics the lilting, melodic feel, as if to be its own special.
The problem is the movie is about as deep as a kiddie pool. It’s not trying to be Nietzsche, but for a movie that poses questions about the natures of two holidays that have so little in common, I kind of want to see that. I do like how the denizens is Halloween Town aren’t repulsed by cutesy, sweet things (like a lot of writers do for villains), but just can’t comprehend joy that doesn’t stem from surprise and fear.
The rest of the dialogue is pretty simple. I guess it’s best so it doesn’t overreach it’s abilities and fail, but at the same time, I want to see more thought-provoking ideas. I can’t fault it for bringing these ideas forward in the first place, but, again, I think it doesn’t quite think through the implications in its world-building. People will get mad and say I’m thinking too much, but I return with this question:
If Jack says “I’ve read these Christmas books so many times. I know the stories, I know the rhymes. I know the Christmas carols all by heart”…why the ploo-perfect hell does he still think Santa Claus is a giant lobster named Sandy Claws?
Who made it worth it? It’s easy to gravitate toward Jack. He goes through his arc, learns about messing in things he shouldn’t, and wears his emotions on his sleeve.
But for my money, Oogie Boogie is a winner. Both he and Jack cavort with joy, but there is a wild, unhinged malice in Oogie’s joy that is infectious. He radiates menace, but at the same time, he overflows with movement and life. He doesn’t even try to be scary so much as intense, sort of like Jigsaw if he enjoyed torturing his victims just a little too much.
Does it give the feels? Yeah, kinda. It’s a bit much to say it gives profound feels, but it has some to offer.
Because of its minimalist writing, there’s not a lot of jokes or gags to interfere with the emotional core of the story. Jack’s situation is relatable to anyone stuck in a rut. And when he’s at his lowest point, singing “Poor Jack”, the Pumpkin King takes a moment to wallow in self-pity, but it feels unearned. Jack hijacked Christmas, intentionally or not, and still disrupted the holiday when he was ill-equipped to do so. It’s like feeling sorry for a 7-year-old who crashes the car.
But if anything comes close to getting feels, it’s Sally’s subplot where she tries to get involved in matters outside of Finklestein’s tower. She is a character who’s easy to empathize with and we want her to succeed, but it gets forgotten about and seen as a sweet love story. Better love story than Twilight, sure, but what did Jack see in her? Luckily, she does have a personality and does have the wherewithal to save interfere when she feels Jack is wrong, but can anyone tell me what was the deal with her vision about Jack ruining Christmas? Where did that come from?
Best quality provided: the movie’s great songs are a huge reasons why it has fans. “This is Halloween” is a perfect song for the holiday, and “What’s This” is a fun, sweet perspective on Christmas. I also love “Jack’s Lament”, “Town Meeting Song”, and of course, “Oogie Boogie Song”. They all have an unbelievable amount of charm and gaiety that are sure to win even the surliest of musical-haters.
What could have been improved: if there’s anything that could be added to the improve the movie, it would be to the direct detriment of the plot. As I stated before, I would have loved to see a further exploration into the worlds, both Halloween Town and Christmas Town and the ones for the other holidays, too.
But the movie’s not about that. It’s meant to be a whimsical story with a simple plot, with focus on the bouncy music and atmosphere, rather than be some deep analysis of the human condition. Anything added would just be a disservice, turning it into a whole different movie.
Verdict: this movie is good. I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just good.
The characters are simple and the songs are fun. The atmosphere, which is pure Burton, is stunning artistry, as is the use of stop-motion animation.
But I like movies that challenge my way of thinking and can expand my perspective. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a sweet distraction rather than a thoughtpiece on humanity. I give it six jack o’lanterns out of ten.