Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beetlejuly: The Nightmare Before Christmas

During Burton's time at The Walt Disney Company, he experimented with not only short films, but literature and poetry. After completing Vincent in 1982, Burton wrote a three page poem inspired by classic holiday stories like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, How The Grinch Stole Christmas and Clement Clarke Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas, more commonly known as The Night Before Christmas. Thus, the poem that eventually evolved into the film, The Nightmare Before Christmas was born and Burton's original intention was to turn the project into a television special with Vincent Price returning to be the special's narrator. Another intention was to adapt the poem into a child's storybook. Burton went as far as to design storyboards and character models for his poem and Disney considered adapting The Nightmare Before Christmas into a short subject or a half hour long television special. But Disney's plans fell through the floor and Burton decided to leave the company altogether in 1984, going onto direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure and other films since. But as the years went by, Burton's mind constantly shifted back to The Nightmare Before Christmas and after the release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Burton decided that he was going to adapt it into a stop motion movie that showed the capabilities of practical effects and filmmaking techniques that were pioneered with Roger Rabbit. However, there was a huge problem. Burton had previously signed on to direct Batman Returns over at Warner Bros. and he didn't want to be involved with the tedious and time consuming art that is stop motion animation. So, he handed the director's cap over to his good friend from CalArts, Henry Selick who was an expert in the field of stop motion animation and did several stop motion sequences for MTV and various television commercials. Selick and his crew drew inspiration from the great Ray Harryhausen as well as Charles Addams, Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss and were determined to make the film as cinematic and contemporary as possible, even if it was shot with models, frame by frame. Thus, production on The Nightmare Before Christmas began in 1991 and lasted almost two years. Over 100 artists were required to bring the film's 227 puppets to life and even PIXAR and Disney's CAPS process were used in some areas of the film (according to the end credits). Nevertheless, The Nightmare Before Christmas was released on October 29th 1993 and became a massive cult hit among many movie goers. Some say it's Burton's best film, some say it's their favorite film of all time, I think it's not only one of Burton's best, it's one of my favorite films of all time and there is a funny story on how it got there.

As I stated before, I wasn't fond of Burton films when I was growing up. There were elements in Pee Wee Big's Adventure and Beetlejuice that terrified the crap out of me and The Nightmare Before Christmas was like an entire movie of those elements. At 3 or 4 years old, I caught a glimpse of my older brother and cousins watching this film in a dark basement and although I was fascinating with the film's intro with the holiday trees and flying ghosts, I caught a glimpse of this terrifying sight.

I am the one hiding under your bed, teeth ground sharp and eyes glowing red! 

I screamed bloody murder and called for my mother who rushed down to the basement and took me upstairs. Even if I calmed down after several minutes, that image of the monster was burnt into my noggin and horrified me every time I thought of it. Even the look of the film's VHS case scared the daylights out of me for some reason and in a fit of rage and fear, I destroyed the outer covering of the VHS case, which is a shame because looking back on it, the VHS case did have some nice artwork to marvel at. But it's good to know that I still have the VHS tape and after nearly 20 years, it still works. 

Disney knew this film would be a little too scary and intense for younger viewers, which is why they distributed Nightmare under their Touchstone Pictures banner instead of their common Disney banner. I absolutely wanted nothing to do with Nightmare and cringed every time the film was mentioned. However, on one summer's evening, right before my brother's soccer game, him and I gave the film a watch and after several years of shunning this movie, I was ready to give the film another viewing. What was my response. I laughed my rear end off. I thought the film was hilarious. The scene where Jack scares an arguing Lock, Shock and Barrel made me snicker hysterically and the children's reactions to Jack's demented Christmas gifts were as hilarious as a Looney Tunes cartoon. I thought the film was nothing more than a comedy and in many ways, it's still a comedy with funny elements to make the viewers pee their undies. But in recent years, the film held a certain sedimental value to me. As a person who at times felt like an outcast and dealt with depression, I couldn't help but relate to Jack Skellington and his "longing" for something more. When Jack enters Christmastown, he's immediately infatuated with the fantasy land, just like I would if I were to stumble onto it's snow covered grounds. And the fact that Jack becomes obsessed with Christmas and all that it stands for mirrors my obsession with action figures, movies and literature. He tries to teach his friends back in Halloweentown all about Christmas, just like I would try to teach my friends and family about certain movies and comic book characters, sometimes to their annoyance. Jack also studies everything Christmas related in attempts to discover the holiday's true meaning, similar to how I would watch movies and analyze everything they had to offer. As you might have guessed, this would be one of the films I carefully observed. 

As I watched the film more and more throughout the years, I came to realize just how breathtakingly brilliant and incredible it was. The stop motion animation is very lifelike and still holds up today. It's obvious Burton, Selick and company drew inspiration from the Rankin Bass stop motion classics as well as the drawings of Edward Gorey and Dr. Seuss. Everything moves so fluently and at times, you forget the characters are even puppets at all. Just imagine how much time and effort it took to make each character move in such a realistic, stylized fashion. You can tell that the stop motion animators had great pride and passion for their work and all their hard work paid off in the end, for the stop motion in this film is probably the greatest stop motion I have ever seen in a motion picture. The music, by Danny Elfman is up there with Edward Scissorhands as his greatest work. This is the first time we actually hear Danny Elfman's singing voice on film, for he provides the singing voice for Jack Skellington, spoken in normal voice by Chris Sarandon. If you heard any of his music for Oingo Boingo, then you know what you're in for and I can almost guarantee that each one of the film's songs will be trapped in your head hours and hours after the film has concluded. My favorite song of the film is probably "Jack's Obsession", for it shows just how fascinated Jack is with Christmas and how determined he is to discover what it's all about. Catherine O'Hara (Delia from Beetlejuice) also does a good job as Sally, carrying the gentle nature and sweetness of the artificial woman. She also has a good singing voice, for she sings "Sally's Song" of how she loves Jack and fears for him as he goes out to deliver the demented Christmas gifts. Ken Page voices Oogie Boogie and pays homage to Cab Calloway and his appearance in the classic Betty Boop cartoon, The Old Man of the Mountain. There's just something about a character made entirely of bugs that appeals to me, not to mention that he has a lair filled with glow in the dark knickknacks and a giant roulette. 

Another enjoyable factor about the movie is that it has a lot of glorious and exotic worlds to gaze at. You have Halloweentown, which harkens back to the old German expressionist films of yesteryear. It's dark, distorted and many of the scenes shot in Halloweentown are seen in shadow. Perhaps the most iconic image of the film is Jack Skellington silhouetted against the giant yellow moon as he sings his song of lament. Christmastown is pure Dr. Seuss and also borrows elements from the winter wonderland seen in many of the Rankin Bass Christmas specials. We see bright, colorful lights, snowmen, elves and old Saint Nick himself, equipped with a candy walking cane. Then, you have the real world, which is perfectly aligned, yet still has an abstract style to it. The houses look like actual houses and it's always a treat to see the terrifying Christmas gifts strike panic and fear in the hearts of all the world's children. The children's reactions to the Christmas gifts are priceless and the Christmas gifts themselves are pretty ingenious. There's a demonic Christmas wreath with long tentacles, a giant snake that has an appetite for silver Christmas trees, a teddy bear with sharp teeth, a Christmas tree filled with bats, a killer jack in the box and even a shrunken head. You can tell why the humans would want to hunt Jack down and as he lies there in that graveyard after being shot down, he comes to realizes that the whole Christmas thing was fun, but Halloween is where he really belongs and he sets out to put things right. He rescues Santa and Sally from Oogie Boogie and in a brilliant homage to The Night Before Christmas, Santa Claus puts his finger under his nose and flies through the pipe from which he came. There are a lot of homages to tales of the past, everything from Frankenstein, to Hamlet to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There are also a ton of references to classic Christmas tales of the past. For example, Jack's dog Zero is like a ghost version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and he even leads Jack's sleigh of skeleton reindeer through the fog filled skies. Jack himself is like a reverse Grinch, only instead of trying to steal Christmas from everybody else, he's trying to make it so everybody, including the demented creatures of Halloweentown can enjoy it. The way the main character comes to realize that what he has down is wrong is also reminiscent of the Grinch and in the end, he sets things right and comes to his senses. Also, is it just me, or are all the residents of Halloweentown like rejected Dr. Seuss characters? I think it's just me. 

In the end, it's quite obvious why this film is considered a classic. It took a great spin on our favorite holidays and helped us to realize why we like celebrating them in the first place. It was one of the first stop motion feature films of it's kind and in many ways, it revolutionized the art and made it what it is today. It solidified Tim Burton as a master of macabre and a storyteller like none other in Hollywood. And most importantly, it made icons out of Jack Skellington, Sally, Zero, Oogie Boogie, Dr. Finklestein, Lock, Shock and Barrel and the rest of their friends and in some ways, made them household names. The Nightmare Before Christmas is an experience like none I've ever embarked on, a film like no film I have ever set eye sockets to. It's a film one can glance at and relish themselves within, on Halloween, Christmas or any time of year. It's a fantasy, a comedy, a horror film and a suspense thriller blended together into one smooth concoction of brilliantness. It's one of my all time favorite movies and I'll probably watch it a thousand times more before this lifetime is out. Kudos to Burton, kudos to Selick and everybody who worked on this movie, for it is surely a masterpiece, a piece of art, a trip through a bizarre art museum full of the unbelievable and the imaginative. Tape yourselves to your chairs while watching this flick, you are in for one whirling, twirling adventure. 

And I just realized, this film turns 20 years old this year. Happy 20th, you NIGHTMARE!

No comments:

Post a Comment