Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: The Nightmare Before Christmas

"I am the shadow on the moon at night... "

The Disney Renaissance produced some of the greatest animated movies of all time.  From 1989's The Little Mermaid to 1999's Tarzan, Disney produced hit after hit and pushed animation's potential further and further every year.  Before this new golden age, however, a quirky animator named Tim Burton worked at Disney and made a stop-motion short film called Vincent.  It was a dark and atmospheric film, combining German Expressionism with a unique macabre gloominess that cemented what would become Burton's trademark style.  Disney was impressed with Vincent enough to consider letting Burton direct another project he had in mind, The Nightmare Before Christmas, a strange mixture of Halloween and Christmas themes that would recall the Rankin-Bass television specials from the '60s and '70s that Burton grew up with.  After leaving the studio in '84 to make the hugely successful Beetlejuice and Batman, Burton decided to go back to his pet project (for which Disney still owned the rights) and make it into a feature film.

But this was Disney's highest point in decades; it might have been a gamble to release a film with such radically different animation and a creepy tone that was pretty far removed from anything else the studio ever produced on a feature-length level.   Apparently produced as a "technical achievement showcase" in the wake of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film would be the most technically accomplished stop-motion film released up to that point, and today it holds up remarkably well.  Nightmare was definitely a hit when it was released, but the cult following the film has built throughout the years has helped it become a classic in many respects.  It's Christmas, Halloween, animation, musical... all different genres working together in equal parts to deliver an engrossing and(forgive my corniness), magical experience.  While the film was directed masterfully by Henry Selick, Tim Burton's visionary stamp is all over Nightmare in all the best ways.  And the score by Danny Elfman? We'll get to that.

We start with a magnificent opening; the camera circles around trees in a wooded area that each seem to represent a different holiday.  As we listen to Patrick Stewart narrate, we are plunged into the Halloween-themed tree's door.  Here we are treated to Elfman's first song "This is Halloween."  This wildly fun tour throughout Halloween Town is fast-paced and creepier than you'd expect from a Disney movie, then or now.  This seems to be the moment when the movie says, "Ok, kids.  You either like this stuff or you're shitting your pants right now.  Either way, I hope you're entertained."  The sequence doesn't feature anything too gory or disturbing, but it pushes the limits of being family friendly just enough to give it some shock value.  On one hand, the characters are clearly cartoonish and the song emits a mood of spooky fun rather than genuine horror. But the atmosphere is still very dark and the eeriness of the stop-motion visuals can be rather haunting, and that is what makes the opening, and the film as a whole, so memorable.  Plus the designs of the monsters and the way they move are just fantastic.

Toward the end of the opening, we are introduced to Jack "The Pumpkin King" Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, but with singing voice provided by Danny Elfman himself).  He's feeling tired of living in Halloween Town, with the constant scaring, grotesqueries, and gloomy atmosphere.  When I was a kid, I misinterpreted Jack's depression here; I thought he was coming to the realization that what he was doing was wrong or immoral, but the truth is he's just bored of it all.  This leads to one of the most iconic shots in the film, which depicts Jack walking down a gigantic spiral root in front of a glowing yellow moon... it's all just so gorgeous.  And working in time with the song, "Jack's Lament," it's just too much visual splendor to take in.

When Jack discovers the holiday portals, he ventures into Christmas Town, which is just about as polar opposite to Halloween Town as can be.  As Jack discovers these things so unfamiliar to him (snow, presents, joy, etc.,),  he sings "What's This?" which just about takes the top spot for best song in the film for me.  The lyrics are witty and the score is energetic; the world of Christmas is just as well-realized as Halloween, and as much as they contrast, you somehow don't feel as though you've stepped into an entirely different movie altogether.  The visual style and level of creativity remains at an extremely high caliber.

I really could sit here and gush about every scene in the movie this way, but I think you get the point.  The characters are all fabulously well-realized, both in terms of how they're designed and how they are written.  I can't say that every character is three dimensional.  Oogie Boogie (voiced by Ken Page) has nothing going for him except that he's the film's (frankly unnecessary but still incredibly fun) Big Bad villain.   Jack and Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Harra) are charming as all hell, and I can't say a blessed thing wrong about them.  Jack Skellington has an impossible character model; with stick-thin limbs and no eyeballs for expression, his ability to move and project emotion thankfully knows no bounds.  He has such a lovable, over-the-top personality that grabs you from the very beginning.  Sally probably has the most depth; she is a mad scientist's creation who exists to serve him in ways that I hope only include making him soup and cleaning the castle.  Nevertheless, this leaf-stuffed rag doll wants out, and she spends much of the film trying to escape her creator and become closer with Jack, whom she admires and ultimately loves.  Sally is probably the most endearing character, and her bluesy, somber song simply titled, "Sally's Song," is cited by Elfman as the best song in the film.  It's hard to argue with him.

The film is about trying new things and self-discovery.  At a glance, the theme seems to be, "You are born to do what you do.  Trying to be something you're not might be fun, but will only end in disaster."  But maybe that's taking the story too literally; maybe there was a way Jack could have gone about creating his own version of Christmas in a less materialistic fashion.  A possible interpretation of the message, as I see it, is that the holidays we celebrate don't exist in the decorations (Christmas trees, Jack-O-Lanterns), but in the feeling.  It's pretty much a carbon copy of the message from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but whereas that story's message is obviously about materialism, it takes a bit of digging to spot it in Nightmare.

While the animation is incredible, the art design is impeccably crafted, and the characters are charming and lovable,  what really pushes Nightmare from being good to GREAT is the musical score and songs.  Danny Elfman is at his absolute best here, producing what he called "one of the easiest jobs he ever had," and in a way it makes sense.  There's no push for Broadway-style showstoppers the way the Renaissance films incorporated them; instead, the songs' format follows that of an opera (where much of what might have been dialogue is sung instead).  The best songs are phenomenally catchy and memorable, always serving the story and adding tons of fun to the experience.  I could listen to this soundtrack all season long (pick one).

There's so much more I'd love to praise the film for, but it really speaks for itself.  Some claim that the love story is underdeveloped and that the plot becomes predictable by the third act, but I feel this can't even begin to take away from the beauty of the rest of the film.  There's no doubt that the film's magic would have suffered had it been animated in anything but stop motion, or had Disney pulled punches with the darkness and tried to make it more kid-friendly.  It may not reach the insane creepiness of The Adventures of Mark Twain, but to be fair, no amount of Halloween spookiness could ever compete with an angel named Satan.  The film is undeniably fun and though this wouldn't be Tim Burton's last foray into the world of stop-motion, it's probably the very best in the sub genre overall.

Creepiness Score:  7 clowns with tear-away faces out of 10.

Movie Score: 10/10