by Dennis Polifroni
(U. S. 1993) DVD/Blu-Ray
Dr. Seuss meets Frankenstein as performed by the Metropolitan Opera
p. Denise DiNovi, Tim Burton d. Henry Selick w. Caroline Thompson,
Micheal McDowell, Joe Ranft poem/designs. Tim Burton
m/songs. Danny Elfman ph. Pete Kozachik art. Dean Taylor ed. Stan Webb
Danny Elfman (Jack Skellington-singing voice), Chris Sarandon (Jack Skellinton-dialogue), Catharine O’Hara (Sally), William Hickey (Dr. Finklestein), Glen Shadix (Mayor), Danny Elfman (Lock), Catharine O’Hara (Shock), Paul Reubens (Barrel), Ed Ivory (Santa Claus), Ken Paige (Oogie Boogie)
An iris slowly opens and a crooked scarecrow appears, clinging to its post. A leaf strewn gust of wind turns the straw-man on its hitch and the pumpkin-headed specter of the fields points with an outstretched, wooden, knobby finger. He beckons and suggests a path we might not readily take. The path is towards a dark place and the ghosts that seemingly rise from nowhere, jelly-like apparitions with deep black holes for eyes, begin to chant.
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thumpaaaa. Thump!
But, what’s this? MUSIC?
It’s here that all fears and feelings of uneasiness drag slowly away like a corpse towards dissipation and we find ourselves in a town square. The squares designs are a combination of cartoonist Charles Addams and the architectural masters of German Expressionism. An assortment of ghouls and creatures that lay dormant till night jump for joy and sing, like a chorus of children rowdy from too much sugar and games heavy with competition, glee filled and anxious. This is music of celebration, a chorus of affirmation, and the excitement in the singers voices signify the congratulations wished upon each other for jobs well done. It is a social celebration of a community that has pulled together in a joint effort.
However, in the midst of all the well wishing and congratulatory exuberance, cheers come ringing out. Cheers of respect and applause that define the admiration these lowly creatures of the night labor on their fearless leader, the king of their quaint little hamlet. It’s amidst these high-pitched songs of praise that the head of their clan, a great man whose presence both humbles them and signifies the bonding of a community capable of such good work is asked to step up, reveal himself, and speak.
One would expect a smiling politician in a top hat and a pristine pin-striped suit or, perhaps, a farmer made of solid muscle whose toils in the fields are unchallenged. What appears, though, is something wholly different for rising from the green moss and silt tainted waters of an ancient, gothic fountain is Jack. Jack, the King of Halloweentown, devoid of skin, a skeleton prince among the ghouls and goonies of a place that can only be visited in the dreams of slumber. With a boney hand, he touches his bat-shaped bow-tie and clears his throat. It is at this moment the crowd that has gathered around him pause in silence. It is a moment we expect a guttural and gurgling thunder of a grunt to rumble from his waist-coated rib cage. Instead, a lilting, soft and beautiful voice wafts across the square.
Nothing, that we have come to expect from other moments like these in time and dreams, is anything like it would seem to be.
Or should be…
So begins Tim Burtons irreverent, kooky and altogether haunting THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
It is a film that breaks the molds of conventional Hollywood musicals. However, even in its insanity, it’s grounded by the same sweetness and moral conventions of the classic musical repertoire and the best films of its genre. At its center is a story of moral revelations turned completely on its ear, taking the often quoted words of wisdom “home is where the heart is” and inverts its sentiments for Jack, the Pumpkin King, will soon find out that heart (and the best of ourselves) is where we and our friends live. It’s a film about the grounding and comforting natures of home (as bizarre as some of our homes may be) and these sentiments, fused as they are here through the stained glass windows of Poe (as in Edgar Allan) and Lovecraft (as in H. P.) and Stevenson (as in Robert Louis) and Whale (as in James), are not new to film musicals. These same sentiments, and the moral lessons derived from them, hark back to a lonely, sepia-toned little girl named Dorothy that once took a magical and song punctuated, wonderful Technicolor trip down a yellow brick road. However, while Dorothy’s journey was one decorated in the bright colors hued onto the landscape through lollipops and candy-canes, Burton chooses the reverse and casts his hero, and the journey he takes, through a mesh that sifts its details from Grand Guignold. It’s a landscape of shadows and fog, of black cats and bats in every attic. It’s a place that resides in the shadows of our childhood closets and those dark, inky black places we dare not reach into under our beds.
The story is simple. Jack has been organizing Halloween for the worlds children for decades from his base of operations, that magical little metropolis mentioned before. Like his home, all the other holidays have their own worlds and lands. However, bored by the daily grind of creating frights for that one day a year, he wanders from the celebration (with his ghost-dog, Zero) and into the woods, lamenting about the predictability of it all. He stumbles upon a ring of red-wood trees. Unbeknownst to him at first, each tree harbors a doorway to another world. Curiosity, being what it is, forces Jacks hand to one of the doors and the spindly skeleton is sucked down, in a spiraling fall (shades of the cyclone that will spin Judy Garland to a place called Munchkinland) to a town swathed in snowflakes and elves and warm cocoa and wrapping paper. From the coldness of his dark world, he escapes to the warmth of a holiday that evokes smiles and not frowns, where screams are replaced by hugs and kisses. Suddenly, and without hesitation to think things through, Jack makes the decision to kidnap Christmas and make it his own. Finally, the predictability of his life has found a loving, new and freshly reactive finish line.
That is, until the best laid plans of mice and men and clumsy skeletons go horribly and mistakenly wrong.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is one of the few recent (by recent I mean within the past twenty years) musicals that holds up remarkably well after repeat viewings (I watch it, at the very least, annually) and the ravages of time. I remember seeing it for the first time on the big screen during its original theatrical run in 1993. Swathed in a cloud of marijuana smoke and NOT a few cans of beer, I remember its irreverence and the whimsical effect it had on me. Yet, seeing it recently (on a pristine Blu-Ray), I realized that its charms and artistry had nothing to do with the illegal (and should be illegal) substances I was partaking in at the time. It is a film that charms with its story, a musical whose music borders on that of the operetta form and originality rarely seen in this kind of genre. It’s a perfectly conceived dream of a movie so convincing in its depiction of its places and people that the audience has no other choice but to surrender to it. Like OZ, we never question the whereto’s and the whyfore’s of its contained reality. It is a film about places and people we only wish really existed. It is the strictest of great fantasy film-making and stands tall with the likes of THE WIZARD OF OZ, KING KONG and STAR WARS.
Thinking back on interviews given by Tim Burton, it’s really not at all hard to understand where the bizarre inspiration for the story came from. As a “goth” kid growing up in the late 60’s and early 70’s, Burton himself was a loner. Forced into solitude by his appearance and enthusiasm for art and the weird, he dove into a life of the mind. Pumped up by candy and made wide-eyed by the glow of a portable black and white television set, he latched onto the surreal landscapes illustrated by Rankin and Bass with their innumerable stop-motion animation holiday specials (RUDOLF THE RED-NOSED REINDEER, SANTA CLAUSE IS COMING TO TOWN) and, particularly, by Chuck Jones immortal short cartoon masterpiece HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. Infusing his own morbid sensibilities (and invoking favorites like Christopher Lee in THE HORROR OF DRACULA and every horror outing for Vincent Price) into the mix, these animated classics served as a diving off point for the soon-to-be animator/director and it’s the fruit of this combination that surfaced as an illustrated poem (I had the great, good fortune to see the Burton exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York City last year. Among the displays was a wealth of drawings and paintings that Burton did decades ago for the poem that NIGHTMARE is based on.).
On paper, in written words and pictures, the poem acted as a constant, gnawing reminder to Burton for decades. Years passed. However, after the success of directing blockbusters like PEE WEES BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE and the over-the-top BATMAN, Burton was finally in a position to bring his love-child made of crayons, ball-points and construction paper to life. To the powers-that-be in Hollywood, the only logical course was to let this dynamo that just made them a gazillion dollars at the box-office have his day in the sun and allow him to realize his dream project.
But, how do you do it? How do you bring the drawings from the poem to life in a way that isn’t old hat?
In the late 1980’s, Burton had the great fortune in meeting one Henry Selick. A budding stop-motion animation genius, Selick had impressed the blockbuster director with some of his early short films and, as lightning often will, set off a fire of inspiration in Burton’s mind. Here, finally, was the perfect medium (one he had loved for years) and the perfect technician to get his project up and purring like the blackest of cemetery cats. In his capable hands, Selick recreates, line-for-line, brush-stroke-for-brush-stroke, every drawing and design Burton committed to paper years back, but this time in moving and flowing three dimensions. The process of stop-motion animation is one that adds depth to the ordinarily two-dimensional qualities of traditionally hand-drawn cartoons. By using miniature sets and posable puppets, the illusion in the animation allows the viewer to look further into the frame and not be encumbered by a make believe world depicted only on drawing boards. There is a solidness to the illusion and it acts like an anchor in reality the more the story swerves off into fantasy. You can feel the cold chill of the winds navigating the corridors and alleyways of Halloweentown or the icy wet fallen snow that covers every inch of Santa’s toy-making plantation. Combined with a surrealistic palette of colors that look like they were brushed onto the screen by an overly hyper kindergartener, the visual dichotomy of the film perfectly suggests a very real nightmare/dreamscape of a child.
What’s this? What’s this?
There’s color everywhere.
What’s this? What’s this?
There’s white things in the air.
I can’t believe my eyes, I must be dreaming.
Wake up, Jack. This isn’t fair.
What’s this? What’s this?
There’s something very wrong.
There’s people singing songs.
The streets are lined with little people laughing.
Everybody seems so happy.
Have I possibly gone daffy?
What is this?
There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads.
They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead.
There’s frost in every window. Oh, I can’t believe my eyes
And, in my bones I feel a warmth that’s coming from in-side.
Oh, look, what’s this?
They’re hanging mistletoe. They kiss?
Why that looks so unique. Inspired!
They’re gathering around, hearing stories
roasting chestnuts on a fire.
In here, they’ve got a little tree.
How queer. And, who would ever think?
They’re covering it with tiny little things.
They’ve got electric lights on strings,
And, there’s a smile on everyone.
So, now correct me if I’m wrong,
This look’s like fun, this looks like fun.
Oh, could it be I got my wish?
Oh my. What now?
The children are asleep.
But, look, there’s nothing underneath.
No ghouls. No witches there to scream and scare them
or ensnare them.
Only little cozy things secure inside their dream-land.
The monsters all are missing and the nightmares can’t be found.
And, in there place there seems to be good feeling all around.
Instead of screams I swear I can hear music in the air.
The smell of cakes and pies is ab-so-lute-ly eve-ry-where.
The sights. The sounds.
They’re everywhere and all around.
I’ve never felt so good before.
This empty place inside of me is filling up.
I simply cannot get enough.
Oh, I want it. Oh, I want it.
Oh, I want it for my own.
I’ve got to know. I’ve got to know.
What is this place that I have found.
WHAT IS THIS?
To say that the lyrics of the above song are heavily influenced by that master of childrens-book disasters, Dr. Seuss, would be an understatement. Long before the project even got underway the roots of the music were beginning to take place.
Former OINGO BOINGO (DEAD MANS PARTY was a college mixer favorite) composer/lead singer and now four time collaborator to Burton, Danny Elfman, was brought into private meetings with the author of the poem. Having his fullest trust and knowing his capabilities outside garage-band rock and punk ballads, Elfman embarked on what would become his signature score. Kind of a half way mark between Seuss and the almost Wagnerian overtones that made his score for the aforementioned BATMAN become noticed by serious scholars in music, the two took their love for the rhyming madman Seuss and created an accompanying round of songs that would resemble, in finished form, an off-the-wall operetta of macabre themes and character laments that would stand the polar opposite to more typical musical fare. MY FAIR LADY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC this films score is not, it’s actually an inventive, almost non-stop blanket of gothic rhythms and lyrics that step in for dialogue. Sticking within the strictest rules that define a true musical, it’s hard to believe at first, and near impossible to damn after the credits scroll, that what NIGHTMARE is, beyond being a terrific animated film and a gloriously whacked out little comedy, is a PURE musical. Its glee springs not so much from the inventiveness of the animation and its attention to the visual details but, rather, the happiness that everyone is feeling by singing and grooving along with the tunes. Nearly every big emotion or plot point of the film has a musical accompaniment and, by Elfmans design, is reminiscent of a genre of music that either turns him on or adds another dimension to the already three-dimensional characters.
Jazz, Opera, Ragtime, 1920’s Busby Berkeley are all represented here in the score. One of the high-water marks, for me anyway, is the wonderful allusion that Elfman makes to Ragtime Jazz and the fusing he does by adding hints of Cab Calloway to the vocal impressions of Oogie Boogie (a.k.a. the Boogie Man) voiced and sung brilliantly by Jazz baritone Ken Paige. It’s a moment of pure compositional inspiration made even more amazing by the black-light effects in the animation and the Voo-Doo themes of Old New Orleans in the production design. Simply put, the sequence rocks the house and has the audience both amazed by the visuals and charmed by the music and lyrics at the same time. Pretty much every number in the film is nothing short of a show stopper. The overtly Seussian lyrics to the above mentioned “What’s This”, the ominous ticking clock device that swirls out of control in the Greig inspired ditty “Making Christmas” and the Bernstein/Sondheim inspired opening and closing numbers that act as musical bookends to the libretto. THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, for film, is pure Opera created directly for the screen. Its songs have become tongue twisting dares for children wanting to sing-along with characters who resemble them in their hopes and predicaments. To think the Academy didn’t even entertain the notion of a nomination for Danny Elfman in the song and score departments was…. Hmmm…. Well, that’s an essay for another time…
The voice cast of the film was the final point of perfection and the icing on the cake. Ken Paige is hilariously menacing as the fog-horned voiced bag of bugs Oogie Boogie, the villain of the piece. Catharine O’Hara lends an almost dainty little-girl charm to mask her premonitory wisdom and the feelings of enslavement she feels to the character of Sally; a Frankensteinian rag-doll stuffed with dead leaves and with the worst make-up application since Bette Davis went before the camera as “Baby Jane” Hudson. The late William Hickey is hysterically funny with his creaking vocalization of the maniacal mad doctor that imprisons Sally and his vocal suggestions towards her hint at just a slight bit of S+M in his intentions. The trio of Danny Elfman, Ohara (again) and Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman) are just right as the always arguing trio of demented and deadly little trick-or-treaters, Lock, Shock and Barrel who set out to help Jack in his plight but are secretly working for Oogie.
The center of the film, though, is the vocal lamentations of Jack. Voiced for dialoque by Chris Sarandon (DOG DAY AFTERNOON, FRIGHT NIGHT), he is quickly usurped in every inflection by Elfman himself, who voices the character in singing mode. His liltingly soft voice exudes a kind of pain rarely heard of in recent screen musicals. At once quirky and always firm in his belief of what is right, Elfmans performance perfectly puts sound to the definition when describing what THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is about.
But, what is THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS really about?
Well, it’s about many things both new and old. It’s about finding your place in a world that doesn’t understand your aspirations and dreams. It’s about trying to do for others what is out of your league when all you had to do in the first place is be who you are. It’s about realizing that your home, your truest place in the universe, is where the people who love you reside.
Come to think about it, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS really does resemble that journey to Oz way back when the movies were putting the finishing touches on how to speak and sing. Like that musical/fantasy film made back in the greatest year the movies ever knew, THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS uses many of the same elements that made that film a classic for all time. For, it’s now a classic itself…
Gee, Aunty Em, there really is no place like home.
How ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ made the ‘Elite 70′:
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 20 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 22 choice