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Hi everyone. So, unfortunately I’ve got some bad news. I know you were all looking forward to my review of Emperor’s New Groove but I’m afraid I just wasn’t able to get it done on time. Sorry. I’ve actually been going through a lot of personal problems recently that’ve been making it hard to write. You all know of course that I recently suffered a severe trauma.
But reviewing Dinosaur was just the straw that broke the mouse’s back. I’m just…
I’m tired of this. I’ve reviewed over forty movies now and it’s just getting so hard to come up with new jokes every two weeks. It’s just the same routine over and over again.
And I! Mouse! The Un-shaved king…have grown so tired of the same old thing…
Hmm…you seem vaguely familiar. I feel like I know you, but blocked out the memory for some reason. Weird.
The Nightmare Before Christmas? Well, it is a great movie. And it is Halloween. But…no, I couldn’t. It’s not part of the canon!
That’s true…wait, how could you know that?
No, no. I can’t. All the reviews I do are in strict chronological order. Nightmare Before Christmas came out in 1993, I’m already into 2000.
Okay! Okay! You’ve talked me into it. I mean, it’ll be fine. So I temporarily forsake my sacred oath to review all the canon Disney classics in order? What’s the worst that could happen?
Okay. So, The Nightmare Before Christmas. Little basic housekeeping out of the way first, this movie was in fact neither written nor directed by Tim Burton.
You’ll remember from the Fox and the Hound review that Tim Burton was an animator at Disney before leaving to become a big time Hollywood muck-a-muck. He came up with the concept for the film, based on a poem he himself wrote in 1982, and designed most the of the characters but when the time came to actually shoot the thing, Burton was too busy making Batman Returns and handed directing duties off to Henry Selick, and scriptwriting chores to Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell. However, I don’t want to undersell Burton’s contribution as this is still probably the most “Tim Burtony” film ever made. That’s really down to the fealty with which Selick treated Burton’s designs and ideas. I mean sure, they put Burton’s name over the thing because he was the bigger draw, and that kind of sucks for Selick…but at the same time, it does very much feel like Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. But of course, the clues are there that Burton didn’t actually direct it. Because Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter aren’t in it and Burton never does anything without Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. And I’m not just talking about movies, either. Burton doesn’t go to the bathroom without Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (Depp pulls the fly down, Carter pulls it back up).
Nightmare has two big influences, the old Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas specials and even more so, the 1966 animated version of Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jack Skellington was envisioned by Burton as being a kind of anti-Grinch, a macabre character who adores Christmas instead of loathing it, but whereas the Grinch changes once he comes to understand Christmas, Jack never does and the movie implies that really that’s okay. Christmas is not for everyone.
The movie begins with a very Seussian rhyming narrator explaining the Holiday Worlds and we see trees with symbols leading to different worlds. And because I know that someone will bring it up in the comments fine, here is the College Humour video of Jack visiting St. Patrick’s Day World.
God, you assholes. Take my people’s most cherished and hallowed day and say that it’s just an excuse for boozing and brawling and ahahhahahahahaa…
Oh, man. Couldn’t do that with a straight face.
Okay, so we go through the door to Halloween and we get our fist song, This is Halloween. Normally I’m pretty lukewarm on Danny Elfman but credit where credit’s due, pretty much all the songs (with the exception of one) are excellent in this movie and it’s a pretty fantastic musical overall. The song is a chorus number where all the various hideous freaks that inhabit Halloween town get to strut their stuff. So, right off the bat (see what I did there, bat…?)
So, right from the get-go, the thing that strikes you is the animation. Nowadays stop-motion animation is practically a dead art but even in the early nineties full length stop-motion features were extremely rare because it is insanely time consuming to do well.
Even with all the resources of a major studio behind them, it took Selick and his team three years to complete this movie once they’d started shooting (compare that to Aladdin, which took a year to animate). And I gotta say, it was worth every second. This is probably the best stop-motion animation I’ve ever seen with the possible exception of The Wrong Trousers. It’s absolutely stunning. As well as being wonderfully animated, the actual models are works of art too.
In fact, it always surprises me just how horrifying a lot of Burton’s creations are. The guy is not fucking around here, some of these guys are bloody terrifying. In fact, with the exception of Jack, Sally, Zero and Santa, he makes no concessions to actually make them visually appealing at all, from the clown with the tearaway face, to the wolfman with the massive fangs or the walking tree dangling LYNCHED FUCKING CORPSES FROM ITS BRANCHES WHAT EVEN THE FUCK?!
Anyway, the town is celebrating the end of another successful Halloween, and giving all the props to their leader, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King.
But despite all the adulation, Jack is secretly unhappy and longs for something different.
What? Who are you?
Look, it’s Halloween and I’m taking a break from the canon. So sue me! And frankly, I’m sick of taking orders from you. It’s my blog and I’m going to do things my way!
Well at least I’m smart enough to know that Frankenstein was the creator, not the monster, ass!
YOU’RE AN ASS! NOW LEAVE ME ALONE, WALT!
Yeah. That’s it. I mean sure, he may be a cultural icon with a multi-billion dollar media empire bearing his name but he doesn’t have a blog, does he? No sir. He does not. Anyway, where were we?
Jack slips away from the adoring crowd and mopes in the graveyard, singing Jack’s Lament, our second song. Jack’s speaking voice was provided by character actor Chris Sarandon, who is a great voice actor but unfortunately not much of a singer. So whenever Jack sings in this movie, the vocals are actually provided by Danny Elfman himself. Jack’s Lament, with Skellington singing before a massive full moon on that weird mountain…tentacle…thing is probably the most iconic visual in the whole movie and quite eerily beautiful. Jack then wanders off into the forest followed by his faithful ghost mutt, Zero.
Meanwhile, all this has been watched by Sally the Ragdoll (Catherine O’Hara). Sally is the creation of Professor Finklestein, a weird, duck-faced decrepit scientist whose experiments extent to messing around with his own brain wait just a damn minute here!
Sally is probably the most normal of all the residents of Halloween town. Remember that when I tell you that she’s a living rag-doll who deals with her problems by poisoning them. This place is FUCKED UP ALL THE WAY TO THE CEILING. Sally wants to escape from Finklestein’s control because she’s restless but Finklestein tells her that it’s “just a phase”.
The next morning, the Mayor shows up at Jack’s door with plans for next years Halloween and I’m starting to understand why Jack’s getting sick of this place. I mean, he doesn’t even get one day off from doing Halloween stuff? Poor guy. The Mayor is an elected politician with two faces.
He starts freaking out when he realises that Jack is missing.
We cut to Jack, sleepwalking through the forest. He wakes up to find himself in a grove of trees, each with a door bearing a different symbol (question: since all these doors are in Halloween world, does that mean Halloween world is the centre of the universe?) Jack is captivated by the door with a Christmas tree on it and reaches out for the doorknob.
Jack steps through the Christmas door and suddenly finds himself falling through the opening credits of the Twilight Zone. He wakes up to find himself in Christmas Land and it’s almost like the Wizard of Oz when suddenly everything is in colour. Burton instructed the animators that for Halloween Town they had three colours to choose from; black, white and orange. So, perhaps not surprisingly, when they finally got to Christmas Town they went a little crazy.
We know get What’s This?, in my opinion the best song in the whole movie where Jack rhapsodises about Christmas in a way that’s both endearing and really creepy: “There’s children throwing snowballs/Instead of throwing heads”
Jack returns to Halloween Town and immediately calls a town hall meeting. In the Town Meeting Song Jack tries in vain to explain the other freaks what Christmas is, something made harder by the fact that he doesn’t really get it himself, he just knows he likes it. The concepts he’s brought back from Christmas Town just don’t make sense to the monsters.
Actually, if I can just put on my folklorist hat for a second, I realised something watching this movie. See, Halloween comes from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain. The Celts had a pretty rigid calendar when it came to the seasons, and October 31st is the date when autumn becomes winter. Now, the Celts believed that on “quarter” festivals like Samhain, dates between two seasons, the barriers between this world and the otherworld were much weaker and all kinds of terrifying demons could cross over into the real world and the best way to protect yourself was to disguise yourself as a demon to throw them off the scent.
My point is, Nightmare Before Christmas is about the dangers of demons crossing over into other worlds and wreaking havoc, meaning it may be the first Halloween movie that gets what the holiday is actually supposed to be about.
Anyway, Jack can only sell the idea of Christmas to the Halloweeners (Halloweenies? Halloweenish? Halloweegians? Native Halloweenicans?) by making it as scary as possible and telling them that the whole shebang is presided over by a hideous, red-lobster monster called “Sandy Claws”.
Jack retreats to his mansions and starts experimenting on the various gee-gaws and trinkets he’s brought back from Christmas Land to try and find a scientific explanation for Christmas. He also immerses himself in books about Christmas, like “A Christmas Carol” and Rudolph’s scandalous tell-all autobiography.
Sally, who has fallen in love with Jack, fixes him a picnic basket because she knows that the way to a skeleton’s non-existent heart is through his non-existent stomach. But she’s too shy to tell him and runs off after giving him the basket. She then sees a vision of a Christmas tree that bursts into flame, warning her that Jack’s plan is going to go horribly wrong.
Jack, meanwhile, has allowed his love of Christmas to curdle into outright megalomania like any good fanboy and declares through the song Jack’s Obsession that “This year, CHRISTMAS SHALL BE OURS!!”
Jack rounds up all the towns…people, and gives each of them a different task. He’s visited by Lock, Shock and Barrel, three evil little children who are Halloween Town’s “greatest trick or treaters”. That’s probably code for “black ops” because Jack gives them the mission of kidnapping Santa and tells them to “leave that no-account Oogie-Boogie out of it!” The kids head off singing Kidnap the Sandy Claws.
Hate this song. Hatehatehatehatehatehatedonotlikeverymuchatall.
See, one of my pet peeves is “sing-talking” which is…well, it’s exactly what it sounds like, singing while just speaking the words and that’s pretty much all of the verses. But then we get to the chorus and everything’s fine, right?
You…you don’t get how rhetorical questions work, do you?
No, the chorus is even worse. It’s just so atonal and combined with the scratchy high-pitched vocals of the three singers: Danny Elfman (Barrel), Catherine O’Hara (Shock) and Paul “Pee-Wee Herman” Reubens (Lock).
Meanwhile, Sandy warns Jack
to beware the ides of March that she’s seen a vision of his Christmas and it’s full of fire and smoke but Jack laughs it off saying “That’s not my Christmas. My Christmas is full of joy and laughter!” and oh God, I envy people who have that kind of positivity.
Lock, Shock and Barrel return saying they’ve captured Santa but it seems they took a wrong turn and instead captured the Easter Bunny.
The Easter Bunny hops around and goes tharn pretty quick when it realises the kind of twisted madhouse it’s been brought to. Jack apologises to the Bunny and tells the three kids to bring it right back where they found it. They leave, with the bunny trembling and traumatised in their sack, which I think is really odd because where it came from is probably not exactly a bed or roses either.
Sally fits Jack for his Santa Claus outfit, all the time trying to talk him out of it but Jack is acting like a life-long transsexual who’s finally been allowed to put on a dress. But looking in the mirror he still feels that there’s something missing. Lock, Shock and Barrel arrive with the Ho-ho-hostage and Jack tells Santa not to worry, because he’s going to take care of Christmas this year. And then he steals Santa’s hat and tells the kids to make sure Santa is comfortable, which to them translates as “Bring him to the house of the possessed sack of cockroaches to be tortured to death”. Easy mistake to make.
We now get Oogie Boogie’s song, which introduces our villain properly a good fifty minutes into the movie in a sequence rendered in garish, glow-in-the-dark luminescent paint and for a second things start looking less like Tim Burton’s Batman and more like Joel Schumacher’s Batman.
They had better release some more Batman movies damn quick because I have now officially run out of references.
Back in town. Sally has become so desperate to stop Jack that she creates a fog to prevent his team of skeleton reindeer from taking off.
But Zero’s nose is a glowing Jack O’Lantern and Jack puts him at the front of the team to pull Rudolph duty and he takes off into the night.
Jack begins his deliveries and in the first house he visits a small boy hears him and sneaks downstairs to see a seven foot tall skeleton in a Santa costume leaving him presents and wait just a damn minute here!
Jack gives the kid a present and vanishes back up the chimney. The kid’s parents come down and ask what Santa got him only to discover that their child has been given a sick, twisted abomination that could only be thought up by the most soulless, degenerate creatures imaginable.
We cut to a police chief taking a call: “Attacked by Christmas toys? Strange, that’s the second toy complaint we’ve had.”
This line raises a few questions for me.
1) Surely this is not so much a “complaint” as a desperate plea for help?
2) Is the point where there was a second complaint really where you started to feel that things were getting weird?
Like all the real-world adults in this movie, we never get to see the police chief’s face.
As Jack’s reign of unwitting terror spreads, the military mobilises to bring them him down. But how do you bring down a sleigh fast enough to visit every home on earth in a single night?
Sally realises that shit’s about to get real and runs off to find Santa. She breaks into Oogie’s lair and almost manages to free him but gets caught herself.
Meanwhile the military gets a lock on Jack’s sleigh and blasts him out of the sky.
Back in Halloween Town, the monsters are distraught that Jack is
dead deader not doing too good. Back in the real world the police do the rounds with a loud-speaker informing the populace that the fake Santa has been destroyed but that there’s no sign of the real one and that Christmas is cancelled (jeez, who died and made this guy Oliver Cromwell?).
Jack of course in not dead…well he is…but…never mind, he’s fine. Jack wakes up in a graveyard on Christmas Eve, as so many of us have done, and laments that he’s ruined everything with the song Poor Jack which starts off as a very Andrew Lloyd Webber esque lamentation before morphing into a quite awesome dark reprise of Jack’s Lament. Jack realises that Halloween is what he was born to do and his mind starts bubbling over with new ideas for next year. Realising that he has to set things right, he sets off back for home through a secret door in a nearby tombstone. Yeah, they offered us one of those for my granddad’s tombstone but we thought it was a needless extravagance. They were all “The portal to a hell dimension built into the headstone is a very popular choice with our customers right now, are you sure you won’t reconsider?” and we were all “Look, we’re simple folk. Name, date of birth, date of death, loving father etc, etc and we’re good.”
Jack returns just in time to stop Oogie Boogie from turning Sally and Santa into Sally-Santa Stew. Oogie and Jack throw down, but honestly Oogie never had a chance.
Jack apologises to Santa who basically tells him to keep his grubby finger bones off his holiday. Jacks says he hopes there’s enough time to save Christmas and Santa “Of course there is, I’m Santa” and flies out the chimney like a boss.
Jack and Sally have a moment before they’re rescued by the Mayor and Lock, Shock and Barrel and we get a montage of Santa travelling around the world, stopping the evil toys and saving Christmas.
Jack returns to Halloween Town to a rapturous welcome. The monster then look up to see Santa flying across the night sky, bringing a gift of snow.
And so the movie ends with Jack and Sally sharing a kiss by the light of the full moon on top of the weird mountain…tentacle…thing…
Although the movie was not a big hit on its release, it’s gone on to become a genuine cult classic with a huge, devoted and eeeeever so slightly crazy fanbase. And with good reason, it’s a genuinely phenomenal achievement, one of those rare movies that works on every level. One thing I noticed watching it again for this review was how little plot there actually is (hence why this review is a little on the short side). But that’s fine, this is a movie to enjoy at a leisurely pace, and it’s good that it gives you the time to really appreciate the animation, the designs, the songs, the music and the wonderful little details hidden throughout the thing like breadcrumbs.
As a movie, it’s pretty much unique, although Disney did threaten sequel in 2001. In CGI. And also threatened to murder every panda in the world just because. But thankfully Burton told them to cut that shit out, saying that the story was done and that there was no need for a sequel. And can I get an “AMEN”? Good on you, Tim. And I’m sure that there’s no possibility that you’ll ever compromise yout artistic vision by rehashing one of your beloved…
NEXT UPDATE: 14 November 2013
NEXT TIME: Ahem. Let’s try this again, shall we?
Neil Sharpson AKA The Unshaved Mouse, is a playwright, comic book writer and blogger living in Dublin. The blog updates every second Thursday. Thanks for reading!
TO BE CONTINUED…