Putting the Christmas Back in The Nightmare Before Christmas
Perhaps this Christmas thing isn’t so creepy after all. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a gift that simply hemorrhages Yuletide spirit.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas movie, not a Halloween movie, regardless of what Henry Selick intended. It’s always run on Halloween, but that’s wrong. It begins at the very end of Halloween and the premise is that the denizens of Halloween Town are getting ready for Christmas. Everything about it is a negation of all things Halloweeny. Jack Skellington, acted by Chris Sarandon and sung by Danny Elfman, longs for a better life, the kind that the notorious Sandy Claws lives. Christmas should be for everyone. Not only that, but Jack thinks he can pimp out Sandy’s ride and make some improvements.
The 1993 movie is often called Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (okay, well, no, it’s usually just called Nightmare) because it is based on a poem Tim Burton wrote and illustrated backwards. Buy it and see. This leads everyone to think that Burton directed it, but no, it was directed by Selick, who also helmed James and the Giant Peach, Monkeybone,and Coraline. Selick is so adept at start-stop animation he must have been Red Light Green Light champion in his Glen Ridge, N.J., kindergarten.
The best thing about the movie is how the dark reality of “Halloween Town” informs the entire logic of the film. Jack assumes everyone working towards a better Christmas is so set in their Halloween mind frames that they can’t make the required intellectual and emotional yuletide jump. He encourages the teeniest suggestions because he knows that’s the best the perennial frighteners can come up with. When Sally warns Jack about a dark vision, Jack assumes she just doesn’t get it, that special feeling in Christmas Land. He is under the imression that Sally is just like everyone else. He doesn’t see past his own Halloween reality to realize that Sally is more in tune with Christmas Town than even Jack. Sandy knows, though. Sandy knows all, asleep, awake, bad or good, as the tune goes.
The beauty of Nightmare Before Christmas is that no logic is skewered, it always makes sense. They fully commit to that reality like The Simpsons commits to a joke. The audience immediately enters the reality, knowing that the only thing to fear … is missing a frame. That itself is a wonder. Every miniscule sculpted clay object reinforces a natural otherness that should be scary. Every movie we’ve ever watched tells us that these are the things that scare us, but in their world and through their eyes, it all makes perfect sense. Whoopee. Hare Kringle to us, one and all.
When Jack rolls into Christmas Land, he bristles with discovery. One whiff of Christmas joy and he’s hooked. What wonders, white things in the air, people making toys, happy kids. Absolutely no one’s dead. The monsters are missing, there are no nightmares to be found and in their place there seems to be good feeling all around. Of course, it is ruled by a vulture in the sky, Sandy Claws, but that’s just a minor chord in a major progression.
further reading: The Best Christmas Horror Movies
On rare occasions, animation can transcend naturally acted films and not just because it can render impossible action and fanciful landscapes. Take the last shot in Monsters Inc., the look on Sully’s face promises an eternity of hope. John Goodman is a great actor, capable of translating a multitude of conflicting emotions through various parts of his body, but at his peak, which he may not have reached, I don’t know if he can infuse an audience with that kind of happiness through a camera lens. Having said that, I always see Goodman when I see that shot. It’s his touch down, even if he was only an assist. Selick brings similar transcendence to his characters, an idealism that surpasses the capacity of their nightmarish perceptions like the Grinch’s heart outgrows the magnifying glass in How The Grinch Stole Christmas.
Jack Skellington’s face is further hampered by the lack of, well, face. He doesn’t have much to work with, this well-dressed bag of bones. Sully had a face, it was covered with hair, sure, but that actually helped, each strand could individually lend emotion. Jack’s gotta give a bare-bones performance at best. But, with the help of a little creative Claymation skullduggery, every new revelation becomes a Christmas gift. The smallest details drive Jack into ecstatic anticipation of every new discovery. The guy doesn’t even have eyebrows, but you feel it. Much of that has to do with the music, of course.
It takes both Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman to create a lovable monster as big as the Pumpkin King. Chris Sarandon, who I’d known mainly from Dog Day Afternoon and as the vampire in Fright Night, is clearly having a blast. It comes through in his voice. When I think of Sarandon, I flash to the complete transformation he made in Dog Day Afternoon, how he inhabited that part inside and out. Filling an empty skull, his disembodied voice doesn’t ring hollow at all. He’s a walking invitation to the greatest party ever thrown and everyone is the guest of dishonor. Even his dog Zero, the head of the pack.
Danny Elfman’s songs are so catchy and yet so prog. The performances are so much fun. The songs don’t make me want to dance – I dance. To my poor kids’ chagrin, I dance. If it’s on TV, when we took them to see it in 3D. How could you not? “What’s This?,” “Kidnap a Sandy Claws,” “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” it’s really all I can do not to attempt to jump into the screen itself and boogie down.
Danny Elfman couldn’t be restrained to just singing either. This is the guy who made noise for his brother Richard Elfman’s cult wonder Forbidden Zone. If you haven’t seen it, find it. Now. Bookmark the page and come back to it after you catch this black and white surrealistic daydream. That’s Elfman tearing away his face as the clownish trickster Barrel.
The sadness that Catherine O’Hara, a comedic genius – watch for her in Scorsese’s After Hours – brings to her delivery is heart wrenching. “Sally’s Song” is filled with longing and regret. Nina Hagen sings Sally in the German version. A lot of people famous in their countries vied to do the voices, I just happen to love her beyond reason.
Catherine O’Hara can make anything funny. I usually associate her with annoying itches you can’t reach, like her Mr. Softee (I always felt sorry for Mrs. Softee) driver with home nursing skills in After Hours or her stitched together sketches on Second City and the Christopher Guest movies. Well, no, I associate her with Nightmare, but love how it fleshes out those roles with nothing but a bit of string. Sally, the rag doll, is the emotional center of the movie. She is us and we are her and we are all together. Worrying, fretting, pouting and don’t get me started on pouters at Christmas. O’Hara also plays Shock. She’d worked with Burton in 1988 on Beetlejuice.
And here she is, tumbling from towers and stitching herself back together.
Acting teacher William Hickey, the patriarch at the center of John Huston’s gangster classic Prizzi’s Honor, is an education in vocal comedy. Too bad he didn’t get a song. An actor’s actor and a comedian’s comic, William Hickey spent most of his life as a Doctor Finklestein of the New York acting world. As a teacher he created quite a few happy experiments.
further reading: Christmas Movies and TV Schedule
Glenn Shadix was the two-faced Mayor of Halloween Town. Ken Page oozes Cab Calloway charm as Oogie Boogie. Watching the film this time through, I caught myself wondering if Lock, Stock and Barrel made rabbit stew out of the Easter Bunny for Oogie Boogie.
Ed Ivory plays the omniscient but firm Santa Claus. Paul Reubens, better known as Pee Wee Herman for whatever reason, plays Lock, a timeless trick or treater with half a bag to fill. Reubens worked with Burton on Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Batman Returns.
The Nightmare Before Christmas makes fun with all things Christmas. There are Grinch references everywhere. I love when the Halloweenies laugh at the mocking and mangling of the joyous holiday. Little Harry and Jordan – won’t they be surprised. That mournful howl of the werewolf when Jack is blown out of the sky. Tiny little details bring the ghosts of Christmas past and the spirits of Halloweens to come together.
The voices are wonderful. The songs are perennial. You can watch this with your kids when they are infants to get away from whatever kiddie shows they’re supposed to be watching. You become a kid again. It is that transformative.