Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) 

Nightmare, indeed.
I have five objections to this monotonous, unpleasant film: the story, the music, the handling of Santa Claus, the basic message, and Tim Burton. You know, quibbles.

The story here is basically How The Grinch Stole Christmas padded to feature length. An unpleasant character does not understand Christmas and so decides to usurp said holiday for his own selfish ends. The Chuck Jones/Dr. Suess holiday cartoon told that story better in under 30 minutes with catchier songs.

I cannot understand why so many people consider Danny Elfman’s score a masterpiece.  I find him to be an artist with a limited pallette, capable of only three main themes, which he has endlessly repeated to form a career:   

1) The longing, swooping, anguished string piece (“Jack’s Lament,”  “Sally’s Song,” his opening title music in Batman);
2) The crazy “merry-go-round-broke-down” cacophony of most everything else (“What is This?”, “Making Christmas,” the Simpsons theme, his opening title music for HBO’s Tales From the Crypt); and
3) The monotonous march, which for all I know may just be the merry-go-round thing played slower and louder (“This is Halloween,” “Kidnap Sandy Claus”).

NOTE: Sometimes these are combined. His main title theme in Mars Attacks!, for example, is a combination of the swoop and the march.

FULL DISCLOSURE: I may just be nursing a grudge against Mr. Elfman. I once attended a horror/sci-fi convention in California that ended with an awards dinner. Every table at this dinner was supposed to include a “celebrity.” Our table’s requisite celebrity was Elfman. After ten minutes he ditched us to sit at Ray Harryhausen’s table. Was it something I said?  Was it my breath? Was it my 10-minute rant mocking his music?

Also, the Santa in The Nightmare Before Christmas is NOT the real Santa. He is certainly not my Santa; he is a fraud. In the words of Will Ferrell in Elf, he is “sitting on a throne of lies.” Here is why.  Three repulsive children (I think they are children) kidnap Santa Claus, tie him to a wheel, and terrorize him with a big bag of bugs. This cannot be Santa. This is certainly not the real Santa. The real Santa cannot be kidnapped and certainly not by children. The real Santa would win these children to his side in an instant, perhaps with the promise of presents if they were good. This film’s Santa is a weak, scared, pie-eyed fraud. Phooey.

Getting back to How The Grinch Stole Christmas, there is one plot point at which the two stories part ways, tellingingly. The Grinch learns that he can be part of Christmas, that Christmas is so big and wonderful that it can include him as well: “Maybe Christmas didn’t come from a store... maybe it was something more.” At the end of The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, Jack Skellington learns that Christmas is Christmas and Halloween is Halloween and never the twain shall meet. Jack learns he should just stay in his place. What kind of message is this for children? I will tell you what kind of message. It is a shitty message.

Plus, after a few films the Tim Burton thing -- oooh, I am dark and misunderstood and artistic and different -- really starts to grate on one’s psyche. All of his early films feature this protagonist; both Vincent and Edward Scissorhands even look like a caricature of their creator. Tim, I know you took a lot of shit growing up for being a dark gawky goth artistic type, but why take it out on us? Like his hero Jack Skellington, Burton feels he cannot be a part of Christmas, so he is going to ruin it for everyone else. The film delights in images of children being handed horrible, scary presents and being chased by nasty things. This seems sadistic and mean spirited, especially in a children’s film.

People praise the character design (which I consider ugly and weird) and the animation (which I find jerky and slow). Before you disagree, try this experiment. Watch any part of the film with the sound turned off. Watch the images. This is not even good animation, much less great animation.

Better Yet:  When it comes to Christmas films I prefer the standards. You cannot go wrong with the 1951 Alastair Sim Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, the original Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Story. These are all holiday classics that actually deserve that title. 

Burton’s later Corpse Bride (2005), while much more entertaining, contains the interesting message (especially for children) that one should always seek out perfect soulmates, no matter who or what they are -- even if said soulmate is a cadaver.

Good to see that you have worked out all of your issues, Tim.

1 comment:

  1. I watched this once while ironing. I remember finding it mildly entertaining and also liking Elfman`s score, which I already owned on CD before I watched the movie.
    This said, I agree with your comments on Burton. I also agree with your comments on Elfman. As far as it belongs to him collaborating with Burton or Raimi or working on some other "quirky" movie, he is a very mixed bag, constantly using the same tricks.
    Outside of that partnerships, he composed some (at least to my ears) very fine scores where you have to look at the credits to know it´s him, like Dead Presidents, Sommersby, Black Beauty, Dolores Claiborne, The wolfman or The kingdom.
    And speaking of Tim Burton, the only good part of his Planet of the Apes disaster, besides Rick Bakers effects, was Elfman´s fantastic main title.