Monday, July 27, 2009

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Nobody, and I mean nobody, does stop-motion like Henry Selick. I would not go so far as to proclaim the greatest in the field -- I'd likely place him third behind Wallace & Gromit creator/animator Nick Park and the king, Ray Harryhausen -- but Selick made three of the greatest children's films of all time with his stop-motion prowess. All of them, by the way, are totally and gloriously unsuited to children. Coraline continues to grow on me now that I can marvel over its gorgeous 2-D flawlessly transferred to Blu-Ray (though I maintain that its 3-D version is the best I've ever seen the format offer), while James and the Giant Peach is one of the finest book adaptations a fan could ask for. The Nightmare Before Christmas, however, still stands as the pinnacle of his career.

An easy explanation for its lasting relevance and entertainment factor is the benefit of one of the greatest like-minded collaborations of the last 20 years. Selick directed the film based on Tim Burton's story and sketches, and together they craft the most perfect Expressionist world ever captured on film. Freed from the confines of reality, of using real sets (no matter how strangely designed), Selick and Burton design an entire world unlike anything you've ever seen: trees branch into jagged claws. Characters can stretch and dismember themselves and return to, well, not normal but whatever passes for it in this world. Even the fences are bent and craggy. The only straight lines in this film seem to be the ones of Jack Skellington's suit.

At a scant 76 minutes, The Nightmare Before Christmas plays like an extended, animated episode of The Twilight Zone, in which each holiday has its own special town filled with creatures who spend all year planning for their holiday. That does not hurt the film, though; no, if anything it helps. Burton and Selick know that they're making a gimmick, so they get in and out of there before you're tempted to ask any questions.

Most of the film occurs within Halloween Town, a garish, terrific display of graveyards, ghosts, goblins and zombies. Skellington, the most popular chap in town, reins as the Pumpkin King. His genial, giving nature stands in humorous contrast to his ability to frighten more effectively than anyone else. After a particularly successful Halloween, Jack goes for a walk in the woods and stumbles through door in one of the trees that leads to the portals to the other holiday towns. He finds himself in the Christmas world and is struck by its beauty. So, he decides to give "Sandy Claws" the year off and plan his own Christmas.

It must be said: even at 76 minutes, Burton cannot keep a narrative together. The main plot is sound, but an aside involving a romance between Jack and Sally, an animated rag doll created by Dr. Finklestein (a clear take on Rotwang and all the other mad scientists of Expressionism and old horror films), goes nowhere. Likewise, Jack's showdown with Oogie Boogie is too much of a left turn, even if it's totally worth it for Oogie's demented casino lair.

Nevertheless, the film works because of its stunning design, seamless animation and a heaping slice of self-awareness that takes pressure off a number of its flaws. Halloween Town is run by a literally two-faced mayor, and Jack's misinterpretation of Santa and his subsequent description of the jolly fat man as a fearsome tyrant is hysterical. It also rings true for me -- there is a large, rather embarrassing photo somewhere in my parents' house of a 2-year-old me bawling on the lap of a mall Santa in terror. The creatures of Halloween Town fall behind Jack and his Christmas plans with vigor, but they're so used to creating frightening pranks that they have no idea how to make a Christmas present.

Danny Elfman's lyrics also contain a wonderful wit, and the songs boost The Nightmare Before Christmas from a technical marvel to a technical marvel that'll make you sing along with glee. Coraline may one day overtake this in my estimation with its superior writing and flawless plotting, but I still profess a soft spot for this movie. Beautiful as Coraline is, it doesn't strike me the way this film does, or even as it did as a child, a decade before I'd even heard of the names Lang and Murnau. As with anything involving Burton (save Ed Wood), it's all about style over substance, but few films contain such an abundance of style, and I'll always love the movie for it.

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