1993: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Directed by Henry Selick
Written by Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell
There was a time, long ago, before a generation of Hot Topic customers got a hold of it, when it was fun, even acceptable, to be a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas. No one had eroticized Jack into some emaciated Romeo with themselves as his Sally (ignoring the fact that he’s a skeleton and she’s stitched together out of corpses — love knows no bounds). Disney hadn’t gotten around to marketing the living daylights out of it (in fact, they seemed a little embarrassed by it at the time). It was just this enjoyably quirky movie with an insanely catchy score, and the worst thing you could say about it was that Tim Burton had a little too easy a time letting people think he did all the work and not Henry Selick.
My main memory of seeing this for the first time came courtesy of my friend Gabe. A group of us went to see it opening weekend, and, perhaps somewhat foolishly, I thought everyone was up to speed on what kind of movie we were seeing. Apparently not, because as “This is Halloween” began mischievously bobbing along at the beginning of the film, I heard a sigh and Gabe’s voice saying, “Nobody told me this was a musical.” Gabe and musicals go together like Vesuvius and Pompeii — the whole conceit of people breaking into song just doesn’t work for him — and you could hear the mixture of despair and annoyance as he realized he was in for ninety minutes of this. Of course we teased him mercilessly about it.
Fortunately, I had no such problems with singing skeletons and ghosts. I bought and played the soundtrack CD incessantly. I was already a fan of Danny Elfman thanks to his scores for Beetlejuice and Batman and Edward Scissorhands, and his work here felt like a sort of culmination. It was his dark imagination given full reign, and he managed to be spooky and pensive and menacing and charming, with both his music and his lyrics. If you ask me, it’s Elfman’s music that’s the impish heart of Nightmare Before Christmas, more so than Burton’s designs. All the characters and settings look like Halloween, but Elfman makes them all feel like Halloween. It’s a damn shame that, in the midst of its musical hot streak at the Oscars, Disney really didn’t push this like they should have, because Elfman definitely deserved some statues for this.
Not that the film is simply a showcase for Elfman. It’s just that the story sort of loses its way once Jack is shot down on Christmas eve. He basically picks himself up with the equivalent of, “Oh well, at least I tried,” and the film seems a little too content to imply he was better off never having tried to broaden his horizons in the first place. I guess you could say the something that was missing was right there in front of him all the time in the form of Sally — the Hot Topic crowd would be the first to leap to that particular conclusion — but I guess I’d hoped for something a little more darkly humorous in the end.
None of which lessens my opinion of the film. It’s still a classic that I pull out for both Halloween and Christmas, one of the rare films that can pull such double duty (hello Gremlins). And there’s some breathtaking animation work by Selick here, foreshadowing what he’d eventually do with the astonishing Coraline some sixteen years later. If the whole thing is maybe a notch less than perfect, it’s still a ton of fun watching it get that close.
Just make sure your friends know it’s a musical first.