Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Not every Christmas-themed movie has to have the spirit of the holiday.  If you need proof, check out the truly awful Jack Frost (1996) --- the horror one, not the Michael Keaton horrible one.  So when The Nightmare Before Christmas was released just before Halloween 1993, with Tim Burton's name above the title, it would have been understandable to expect something distinctly non-traditional, as far as Christmas movies go.  And yes, there are goblins and monsters and whatnot, but it turns out to be far more Christmas-y than you might suspect.

Apparently, there is a self-contained town for every major holiday.  There's a Valentine Town, a Thanksgiving Town, and presumably a Guy Fawkes Town and a Casmir Pulaski Town.  In these towns, the citizens live and breathe the spirit of the holiday; their whole year builds up to one day, and the day after begins the cycle anew.   In Halloween Town, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon for the dialogue, Danny Elfman for the singing) is the town's leader, The Pumpkin King, and the man with the most Halloween spirit.  Jack, though, is having a crisis of faith.  The repetitious cycle of preparing for Halloween, providing scares on Halloween, and then doing it all over again, year after year, is wearing him down.  While taking a melancholy walk, Jack stumbles into a gateway to the other holiday towns and chooses to enter Christmas Town on a whim.

Christmas Town is refreshing, surprising, and (most importantly) new to Jack.  Snow (what's this?) is everywhere, elves are making presents (what are they?), Christmas trees are being decorated (why?), and the whole town is apparently being run by the presumably fearsome Santy Claws.  Jack returns home to try and explain the concept of Christmas to Halloween Town, even if he doesn't quite understand it himself.  While talking about the unfamiliar holiday, Jack realizes that the only way these Halloweenies are going to truly understand the day will be to hijack it and add their own flair to it, making it a trick-or-treat sort of Christmas.

Despite the inclusion of his name above the credits, Tim Burton did not have a huge part in the assembling of this film.  He came up with the concept and some of the preliminary character designs before shelving the project for about a decade.  When he was finally able to get back to it, Burton's obligations to Batman Returns, along with a distaste for the mind-numbing process of stop-motion animation, kept him from directing or writing the film.  Instead, he came up with an outline, Danny Elfman came up with songs, and then they hired a director and screenwriter.  Definitely an unusual production story.

The film looks fantastic.  This is some of the most expressive motion-capture animation you will find anywhere, and the character design is generally pretty good, with a couple of noteworthy exceptions (Sally and Doctor Finklestein) being great.  Halloween Town has its own distinct feel and architecture, as do Christmas Town and the Real World.  Director Henry Selick does a great job making sure that the animation in this film is flawless and innovative (how do they even have a transparent motion-captured dog ghost?), and yet, there is no question that the film has a Tim Burton (read: left of center) feel to it.

I'm not particularly fond of musicals, but this one is okay, I guess.  I don't have any attachment to any single song, which is strange.  Normally, I can pick out the dominant song in a musical, but this soundtrack all seems to be on roughly the same level.  The songs aren't bad, mind you, but I think they are definitely less charming than the film as a whole.  My theory for this is that the Halloween characters don't lend themselves too naturally to singing in character (I'm talking more about the Halloween Town people, not the lead singers), so when they pop up in a song, it's cute (oh, that's right, it's Halloween), but I think the songs are undercut by including them.

I've always liked this movie, though.  It's a fun plot for kids and it's got a bit of edge in a genre (Disney movies) that is largely lacking anything sharper than a spoon.  The voice acting is pretty good, with Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara (as Sally), and William Hickey (Doctor Finklestein) having the most noteworthy performances; I liked Danny Elfman's singing, as well, and was surprised by the quality of Catherine O'Hara's singing voice.  Really, this is a cute movie about finding and understanding the ideals of the Christmas season --- what else can it be about, since the characters are discovering these notions for the first time?  And, in that, this movie is successful.  Personally, I would like a more frightening movie that takes advantage of how horrible the Halloweenies can be, but I understand that this is a children's movie.

But something is still missing from this film.  If it was just about discovering the new feelings that come from another holiday, I think that would be enough; Halloween is for fun scares and Christmas is (allegedly) about giving and emotional warmth.  The love story between Jack and Sally takes precedence by the end of the film, though.  I dunno, sometimes I think this movie didn't know exactly what emotional buttons it wanted to press, so they just pushed at random.  It is certainly a charming kid's movie, but it doesn't pack the emotional punch (or memorable songs) that the best animated features do.  I'm a pretty visual guy, though, so the fantastic animation makes up for some of those shortcomings.

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