Tuesday, December 20, 2011

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

I stand by what I wrote in July!

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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 the holiday for his own selfish ends.  The Chuck Jones/Dr. Seuss 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 palette, 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,” and 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, and the opening title music for HBO’s Tales From the Crypt); and
3)  The monotonous march, which for all I know might 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! 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 my breath? Was it something I said? Could it have been my 10-minute rant mocking his music?

Also, the Santa in The Nightmare Before Christmas is NOT the real Santa. He is 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, tellingly. 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, gothic 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.

Burton’s later Corpse Bride (2005), while much more entertaining, contains the similarly twisted message that one should always seek out the perfect soul mate, no matter who or what he/she/it is -- even if said soulmate is a cadaver. It is good to see that you have worked out all of your issues, Tim.

BY THE WAY: I certainly do not need to ever see this stop-motion POS ever again—SO I AM ADDING MY BLU-RAY COPY TO THE SWAG THAT YOU CAN WIN IN THE F THIS MOVIE! WIN OUR STUFF! CONTEST.


  1. Is it possible (possible, I said) that you’re misinterpreting NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS?

    You say Jack usurps Christmas for his “own selfish ends,” but I don’t believe that is accurate. The story begins with Jack not lamenting about being misunderstood, but about being stuck in his ways and longing for something more in his life. When he discovers Christmas Town, he comes across the warmth and goodness of the holiday – the “something more.” His motivation for the rest of the movie is to share that good feeling with others, even if he himself doesn’t fully grasp it until after his disastrous sleigh ride. The movie is playing a game of “What would someone who’d never before seen Christmas think of it?” Jack is not trying to “ruin it for everyone else,” as you say, he wants to spread his own form of Christmas cheer, even if he does not know what Christmas cheer is. Jack is immediately drawn to Christmas upon experiencing it, but, because he’s a Halloween monster, interprets it the only way he knows how. He finds something he can be excited about, and is excited about showing it to everyone. Looks to me like that makes him enthusiastic, not selfish.

    I’m not sure where you’re getting Santa being “weak and scared” from. He’s just as out of his element in Halloween Town as Jack was in Christmas Town, that’s true, but I feel he’s more or less consistent with a traditional Santa. The final bad guy death happens under his boot, not Jack’s. Plus, he actually does win over the three trick-or-treaters, as they help him out during the finale and are good kids at the end of the movie. Later, you say the movie “delights in images of children being handed horrible, scary presents and being chased by nasty things.” But then, Santa is the one who takes away the nasty things and offers presents in their place – in one case, with a puppy. A puppy!

    You say Jack “learns that Christmas is Christmas and Halloween is Halloween and never the twain shall meet.” Yet the movie ends with Santa paying a visit to Halloween Town, and all the monsters get to enjoy their first Christmas. As for “Jack learns he should just stay in his place,” isn’t it through Jack’s experiences, his trying something new and different, that he wakes up from his earlier doldrums and is excited about his life again? I see it not as staying in your place, but about the benefits of opening your mind to something new.

    I’m one of the ones praising the animation and visuals. It’s stop motion, so it should look a little “jerky” as you say. As for it being “ugly,” director Henry Selick alleges that he was intentionally aiming for a combination of cute and grotesque, so stuff like puppies and candy canes can appear in the same flick as a little kid with his eyeballs sewn shut. As for Danny Elfman, he gets to wake up next to Bridget Fonda every morning, so he’s a better man than I.

    Finally, it dawns on me that perhaps you wrote what you wrote just for the sake of a few laughs, and I’m the one taking it too seriously. That would mean the joke is on me right now, correct?

  2. Mac, thank you for reading my column with such care and rigor! I dare say that you have READ the column much more thoughtfully than I WROTE it. Happy holidays.