Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | October 27, 2008 | Comments ()
I happen to consider myself a Halloween kind of guy. Whenever October rolls around, I load up my Netflix queue with Val Lewton, Vincent Price, and Hammer Horror. I read nothing but Susan Hill, Ambrose Bierce, Shirley Jackson and Lovecraft, listen to nothing but old BBC ghost stories. The whole month becomes an ode to ghouls and gothic spookiness, culminating in costume parties wherein I drink too much and hit on the girl dressed like a slutty ATM machine.
So, I can really get used to a tradition like releasing Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in theaters during the Samhain season every year. I’ve never been a Burton fanboy, but there’s no denying that he gets the Halloween aesthetic. Nightmare looks and feels like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari animated by Ray Harryhausen, equal parts Edward Gorey and Edvard Munch, the perfect realization of the bizzaro version of Disney (where, fittingly, Burton got his start) in its creator’s head.
There’s just something about Nightmare - a purity of vision, I guess, that makes me prefer it over Burton’s later foray into animation, Corpse Bride. The latter, while more technically sophisticated, loses something that Nightmare has; the cruder stop-motion somehow feels more genuine, as if your Halloween toys and gewgaws really came to life and started clomping around; they have real texture and depth. It might be because Burton didn’t actually direct the film, having handed the reins to stop-motion specialist Henry Selick (who also did James and the Giant Peach and the forthcoming Coraline), content to oversee the project and imbue every bit of it with his sensibilities, letting others focus on the nitty-gritty of getting it made. I actually think an animated world of this kind is the truest vision of the warped dreamscape which must exist in Burton’s head; attempts to replicate it in the dark dioramas of his Batman films, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd are evocative enough, but I’d wager that The Nightmare Before Christmas is much closer.
Danny Elfman’s score and singing as Jack Skellington also fit like a glove, Elfman being a bit of a Burtonesque freak himself. Musicals I can take or leave, but the numbers in Nightmare certainly give it a sense of fun and deft pace, fitting in well with what is meant to be a children’s film, after all. My only quibble here was that the inimitable (and recently deceased) Levi Stubbs didn’t provide the voice of Oogie Boogie.
The plot is little more than an excuse to give life to an aesthetic, that feeling of holiday ambiance we experience most strongly as children. Story-as-narrative only exists in the vaguest sense here; we’re meant to look and listen and feel rather than to think. Burton has often been quoted as saying the impressions we form as children are so strong that much of our lives are spent trying to recreate them. This is something that not only informs Nightmare, but nearly everything in his oeuvre - the attempt to recreate an innocence (albeit a warped innocence) and emotional simplicity. Burton does this by showering us with sheer imagery - ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and witches - the cartoonish and weirdly cute creepies which haunt the young imagination.
The film is fine as is, but the recent re-releases have taken to augmenting the visuals with digital 3-D flourishes, a nice treat for people already familiar with it and a boon for younger kids waiting to be introduced. If I had kids, I’d be traumatizing them all month with this movie. The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t perfect, but I can’t think of anything more perfect for the time and place it’s meant to be watched in.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas and also recommends to Halloween junkies: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.