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Spending the Holidays in Halloween Town

Few films can boast the playability of A Nightmare Before Christmas. If anything, it is the perfect film for two holidays: both Halloween and Christmas. It helps that the film is coolly brilliant and entertaining that it could essentially be watched any time without presupposed reasons. Of course, there is particular reason to honor it, as the film celebrated its 10-year anniversary this year: back on October 13th, 1993, this stop-motion masterpiece came to show us a world unlike anything we'd ever seen, in a fashion of great novelty to most of the audience.


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The first thing anyone is going to notice when watching this film, and often what the film is most remembered for, is its technical achievement. Stop-motion animation/claymation, like this film is, was not an especially prevalent art form back in 1990, when this film started to truly come into production. (Worth noting, though, that Tim Burton conceived these characters and this plot well back into his days as a Disney animator, and submitted it to them; thusly, when he finally wanted to get this movie made, despite his good relations with WB at the time, the project could only legally be done through Disney.) The only significant name in stop-motion animation before was the great Ray Harryhausen, renowned for his claymation monsters for many classic - read: cheesy - creature features. Aardman was a but a blip on the radar, yet to produce any Wallace and Gromit shorts. The process was confined mostly to student animation, and often not too good. So imagine the uphill battle it must've taken for Burton and Selick to convince Disney to let this project be done in claymation - especially since the studio was in an upswing of cel animation production, coming off of the success of The Little Mermaid.

We should be very grateful they succeeded. Claymation is absolutely the best approach for this material. Burton's style is so esoteric and, more importantly, so Gorey-like that watching it flatly might be too much. Imagine trying to make an actual Edward Gorey drawing move; it would be a highly peculiar sight. The realism and three-dimensionality of claymation fits Burton and Selick's visuals much, much better. The film's realization of Burton's superb character designs is possibly its greatest technical achievement. There isn't a single bland character in the entire film, and that even counts the few humans who show up. Take Jack Skellington, so wonderfully expressive, and yet completely blank eyes. The genius of his expressiveness, though, is in his brows, which communicate so much in even the smallest movements, to a degree that would make Bugs Bunny proud. And now realize that these brows change on his skullish face without ANY seams, meaning the heads themselves must have all been constructed separately to boast all of that facial movement. That's superior detail work. To an even greater advantage, claymation allows Selick to choreograph camera tricks, angles, and movements with far more grace, especially given what was capable at the time in cel animation. Consider the opening, with the first shot constructed like a lingering tracking shot that rivals Goodfellas' famed tracking of Henry and Karen all the way through the nightclub for both versatility and sheer length. It's one of the few animated films that can truly offer remarkable cinematography in the classical sense of the term.

This film also holds the distinction of being one of the most excellent musicals ever created. Truly, Nightmare deserves the distinction of being a musical more than possibly every other animated feature ever created. In the standard animated "musical" as we know it, like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, characters unwind their feelings and simply express themselves via song, leaving the plot to the dialogue. Danny Elfman, the composer and lyricist for the film, is far more prolific than that for the film, and he contributed so much musically to the film that it is safe to say that nearly every major plot point actually occurs mid-song. Characters use songs to express themselves, true, but they also do most of their development and decision-making musically, especially Jack. The key moment for the film, Jack's Eureka moment to do Christmas for himself ("Something's Up With Jack"), is unwound completely through singing. One wonders whether this was not a choice made out of playing one's stronger assets; there's nothing wrong with Caroline Thompson's screenplay, but it does not have nearly the amount of poetic brilliance of Elfman's lyrics. Frankly, the characters just sound better speaking Elfman's words. (For her credit, Thompson gets to handle Dr. Finklestein entirely on her own, and does most of the Mayor's shining moments, and both characters are brilliantly written.)

In regards to the story itself, in recently rethinking it, I found the conundrum it presented most curious. Obviously, the key questionable element is Jack himself, whose place in the story is somewhere halfway between protagonist and antagonist for most of the film. Do we approve of his actions? Do we find his desires as repellent as selfish greed, or do we silently reward him for seeking better circumstances, especially given the dinginess of his surroundings? (Say what you will about Halloween Town in general, but there certainly is a gut reaction of detachment from the, for lack of a better word, "ickiness" of the place. That is, unless you're a member of the goth culture that utterly embraces this film and all they feel it stands for.) One thing is for sure, and that is that Jack means no harm. He is, at his core, a good soul, which is why his shift from teetering between hero and villain to full-blown hero in the last act of the film is an entirely believable one. But still, I found his situation, and how the film resolves it, a tad ambiguous in intent. In one light, you can take it as a grass-is-greener story, and coming to appreciate what you have around you. Yet, that does not seem to cover the fact that the film takes a lonely and ambitious soul and smacks down his dreams, seeming to say that you should stick to what you're good at. That's a really depressing message.

It took some time, but I reconciled this discordant message. At what point do we really sense that Jack's aims are something to be taken negatively? It is when he plans to do it himself, naturally - when he takes that step over the line from his research and attempts to understand the holiday to deciding that he can do it for himself and even improve upon it. Recall the master line of this decision: "Just because I cannot see it doesn't mean I can't believe it!" HERE'S where Jack begins a decline whose tragedy resembles Greek structure, setting himself up for a fall of grand design. The film is not halting his ambitions because ambition to go beyond your station is somehow wrong. The target is not dreams, but ignorance. Jack's crime is not based in aim, but laziness and ego. Would there have been any real problem had Jack gone the extra mile to really try and understand what Christmas is? Yes, one can argue that there was a cultural obstacle of sorts separating Jack from his goal, but that illustrates the point all the more: it was something that Jack could not understand, but he took that as little reason to halt and even went as far as to say he could do it somehow better than those who do it for real. Desire aside, Jack refused to admit that the nature of Halloween was blatantly influencing his interpretation of what Christmas was; he had a minor sensation of the alternate in Christmas that drew him to desire it in the first place, but he just could not take a proper objective stance upon it. Nobody is going to understand the meaning of Christmas if you've got a Halloween kind of mind. This is why the victory for Jack, in the very end, is not that he particularly understood Christmas, but that he realized all the more thoroughly how well he understood Halloween and the way his holiday worked. He is the Pumpkin King, and for damn good reason.

Brilliant films like The Nightmare Before Christmas are always remarkable in this fashion. When you start peeling the layers away, you begin to recognize universal truths that may not be evident at all. In fact, the argument the film makes against ignorant and stubborn drives to (mis)interpret can be applied, for example, to religious hypocracy, for those who do not inimately embrace all aspects of a particular faith's dogma but continue instead to use the shell of the religion to advance their own goals. (Just because I can't see it doesn't mean I can't believe it, indeed. Hmph.) And yet, there is utterly no necessity to go into such academics about the film. It remains a beautiful and brilliant film about acceptance, understanding, and love, which makes it all the more the perfect film for the holidays. Happy holidays, everyone. May your Christmas trees not be eaten by boa constrictors.

****/****


A critique by Alex Weitzman
First Published on Dec 20, 2003

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