Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Nightmare Before Christmas / Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas

Some of the impressions I’ve been writing lately have been a long time coming because it’s taken me ages to finish watching things. This one is overdue just because I haven’t gotten around to it, deciding I wanted to wait for a repeat viewing – which is also the case for director Henry Selick’s James and the Giant Peach.

What’s that? Henry who? Wasn’t the director here Tim Burton? Well, as a matter of fact, no – it wasn’t. Yes, it has his trademark atmospherics, his cheerfully grim style, music from Danny Elfman (vocal performances too) and even says ‘Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas’ in the posters. But while he was the creative force behind the project’s inception, served as the producer and came up with the story (based on a poem he had written), he neither directed the piece nor wrote the screenplay. After all, he is a director of live-action films, not a creator of stop-motion – though he did go on to co-direct The Corpse Bride. The credit here, however, goes to Selick, later to gain more recognition as the director of Coraline and currently under the employ of Pixar and working on a new film before being lined up to adapt a Neil Gaiman novel.

This is not a case of either-or, however: both men deserve considerable credit for creating this very fine piece of work. Along with Aardman, this 1993 work sent new life coursing through stop-motion animation, which had been foundering since 1986’s creepy but iconic The Adventures of Mark Twain. Its brilliantly distinctive aesthetic showed that CG was not going to entirely replace this branch of the art form, and in every way – concept, characters, music, pacing, believable antagonist and even progression of its romance – it is a good, solid, memorable film. And while Burton has always come down heavily on talk of a direct sequel, the world has remained an attractive one, appearing, for example, in the Kingdom Hearts games. For while this was seen as a little too risky to be released as a Disney animation, it comes from the studio’s Touchstone imprint – which probably helped it at the time, for while Disney was making excellent films like The Lion King, they weren’t exactly associated with quirky, edgy, dark work at the time, and if anything the stigma of Disney being safe and cute could have lost Nightmare a chunk of its audience.

The story is based on one of the more popular modern takes on Christmas: someone who is not a typical Christmas figure intruding onto the joy and brightness of Christmas and ruining it. Unlike a Grinch or a rampaging South Park snowman, here Jack Skellington has mostly good intentions. He is The Pumpkin King, leading the horror-themed inhabitants of the gleefully German Expressionist Halloween Town, and once he glimpses the gaudy holiday happiness of Christmas Town, he is infatuated and wants to be able to do the same thing – even going so far as to kidnap Santa himself to take his place. Of course, things don’t go to plan and as it turns out, you can’t just usurp Father Christmas – especially with the chaotic madman Oogie Boogie setting his eyes on Santa and Jack’s love interest Sally. His motivation is ultimately a little dubious, but he’s so charismatic and visually striking that this can only be considered a minor quibble. He is cruel for the sake of cruelty, because that’s the sort of character he is.

Brilliant visually, clever in how it can make characters at one repulsive and appealing to look at, and delivered with great belief and a fantastic aesthetic, it’s no wonder it was such a hit – and has become a neatly alternative Christmas classic. 

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