December 5, 2002

Under the Radar

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Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas superficially resembles a very typical Disney film. There is a hero who goes on a quest; there is the girl who loves him. There is a menacing villain and a scrappy animal sidekick and some pretty good songs, one of which is sung by the hero on a hill. Look beyond the surface however, and you’ll see the wonderful grotesques of Tim Burton’s imagination inhabiting a world as quirky as they are (the movie was made with claymation, an old technique also used on King Kong that required two years of production). For no additional cost, you’ll also get a subtle tribute to Preston Sturges’s seminal 40’s comedy Sullivan’s Travels.

Burton tells us that holidays aren’t just celebrated, they’re made. Each one has its own town, whose inhabitants devote their lives to crafting the different components of its given holiday. Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, a long way from Prince Humperdink) is the first citizen of Halloween town, where it isn’t always night, but might as well be for the weak brownish daylight. The denizens of Halloweentown include all the usual suspects: vampires, witches, and mad scientists. Burton’s genius is showing us how these monsters act when they’re not on duty: the witches trade gossip, the vampires carry sun repelling umbrellas everywhere and the Dr., unsatisfied with the independence of his first creation (Sally, Jack’s girlfriend), sets out to replicate himself. It’s a surprisingly mundane existence; Burton understands that the supernatural is both more unsettling and more amusing when the monsters are unaware of their monstrousness. Everyone in Halloween town, from the thing under the stairs to the literally two faced mayor, lives for the annual parade on Oct. 31st. After this year’s fiery finish, they happily go back to work, preparing for next year. But Jack is unsatisfied and wanders into the wood between worlds where he stumbles upon a door marked with a decorated tree, opens it, and discovers Christmas. Now this, he thinks, is more like it. Jack also finds out that his counterpart in Christmastown, The Santy Claws, receives considerably more prestige than he. Jack returns home, brain storms with his friends, and sets out to co-op Christmas. At first his fellow citizens are baffled, but they follow their leader with surprising good cheer, attempting to replicate the traditions and toys he’s showed them- with a hilarious lack of success. The final component in Jack’s not so nefarious plan is to relieve Santy Claws of his duties. To this end, he employs Lock, Stock, and Barrel, the minions of the town only truly evil character, Oogie Boogie. Jack takes to the skies (with a wonderful nod to the Rudolph story) and unwittingly gives the children of the world a very traumatic holiday. But it all turns out all right in the end; after all, this is a Disney movie. It just doesn’t look much like one, which is why it’s so good.

Jack is the quintessential Burton character. He’s the clay brother to Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, and Batman. Unlike Burton’s other outcasts, however, Jack comes from a world where he’s accepted and loved. Instead of the usual struggle for acceptance, the movie is about Jack’s need to accept himself and his place in the world. It’s a little like an inverted Wizard of Oz, with the brilliant difference being that Jack happens to be the scariest, most unusual thing anyone in his new word encounters. Flipping the usual characterizations allows Burton to make a smart, original film that both kids and parents appreciate, but it is Danny Elfman’s songs and Harry Selick’s direction which bring it to life.

Nightmare is filled to bursting. Not with the usual filmatic excess of explosions and eye popping spectacle, but with imaginative detail. We accept Halloweentown as a real place because the film treats it not just as a set piece, but as a real location where the characters live and work. The claymators really thought about what living there would be like, and it shows. Witness the zombie like child’s balloon (it’s a bat), the mayor’s mode of transportation (he’s the only one with a car) or how Sally escapes her creator (she’s a rag doll, so she simply unravels her arm and it opens the door for her). Danny Elfman’s songs do musically what the scenery does visually: adds depth to the characters and their world. Thankfully, they bare more resemblance to Gilbert and Sullivan at their wittiest than the usual Disney treacle.

Like Sturges’s Sullivan, Jack learns that his skill at what he does means an obligation to the world to continue doing it. Like Dorothy, he learns that there’s no place like home (and in his case that’s really the truth). But Jack is a Burton character, so he learns in a uniquely off kilter and strangely heartwarming way. You’ll love every minute of Jack’s weird journey.

Archived article by Erica Stein