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Consumed With Hate? Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas

I'm Your Boogie Man, That's What I Am...

The Crime: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Guilty Party: Honestly, I'm gonna put this one on myself
Overview: I just didn't get it

Why I Don't Completely Hate It...

Getting this out of the way up front: this is not a bad movie, it's just one that I happen to not like. It might even be a great movie, but for reasons I'll get to below, up until very recently I would have been hard pressed to call it a "good" movie. I just... I didn't get it. All I could see were the blemishes, but I never connected with the characters, and I couldn't really understand why people were so into it. Not that I thought those people were stupid or had bad taste or anything like that. Hell, I married one of those people, so I at least know she has excellent taste in men.

[TODO: insert gif of Rodney Dangerfield straightening his tie] 

Regardless, there are things that it unquestionably does well, so why not enumerate them?

First of all, it is a technical feat. Henry Selick's stop-motion animation is nuanced and impressive across every last frame. If you haven't seen the movie Coraline, stop what you're doing and watch it right now, because that film features the full scope of what stop-motion animation can do. Nightmare is less impressive overall, but it has the vim and vigor of a hungry artist directing his first feature. Because Henry Selick directed it. And once more for the kids in the cheap seats: TIM BURTON DID NOT DIRECT THIS MOVIE! He was was a major creative force behind it, to be sure, but I've always kind of resented that he managed to work his name into the title. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

My feelings aside, Burton's name on a marquis was a brilliant piece of brand management. He transformed his moniker into an aesthetic! And if you ignore the first two words, that title is just brilliant. The visual design of the film is unique. The character designs are interesting and compelling, and Henry "I actually directed this movie, melon-farmers" Selick crafts some incredibly striking visual tableaus. The voice acting is spot-on. Danny Elfman's score is bombastic and theatrical in that way that only Danny Elfman can really accomplish. And while Elfman's compositions are of, in my opinion, somewhat limited scope (for giggles, just imagine one of his scores against any film from Denis Villeneuve or Christopher Nolan), it's kind of perfect here. The story is heart-felt, and some of the gags during the Christmas Eve sequence are laugh-out-loud hilarious. So what, exactly, don't I like about it?

Any of it, really. It just doesn't work for me. I don't enjoy Burton's aesthetic, except in very small doses. Big Fish, for example, was a perfect canvas for his horny-goth buffoonery, where the Burtonisms played out more like Fabulism. While I like Elfman's score, I don't actually like the songs in this movie. They're very reminiscent of musical theater in that they're technically interesting, but they don't stick in your head. They feel very busy, and with the exception of Sally's song, they never pause or take a breath, they just race from motif to motif. In fact, the whole film feels rushed to me, really. It needed to be ten minutes longer. Now, I understand why it's rushed. Stop-motion is labor intensive. Every minute of film time takes a team of professionals roughly twelve-and-a-half years to animate and photograph. But even if there's a good reason for it to be a very short movie, I still find the characters under-developed and that will diminish my enjoyment of it.

Also, I don't like Jack. He's a guy who learns of a thing and immediately thinks he can fix it despite having zero background and--by his own admission--no real understanding of it. I know people who have that attitude in real life. And I hate them. And Sally... I mean, why is she even here? She doesn't really advance the narrative other than to tell Jack that's he wrong, and yet she just hangs around the edges of all of these sequences. Also, her aesthetic doesn't really match the rest of the film. She's colorful and vulnerable and soft and helpful in a world that's defined by drabness and sharp edges. What is she even doing here? And if, right about now, you're waving your arms screaming at the computer screen that I'm an idiot, let me just assure you that a) you're right, and b) I'm getting there.

As I've said, I don't care for the movie, but it's a favorite of my wife's and at 75 minutes, it's a very consumable length, so I don't mind being made to watch it when it returns to the theaters for some kind of special event screening. I've seen it on the home theater. I've seen it in 3D. And then last week I had occasion to see it with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra playing the score. And it was on this most recent viewing that it clicked. I was dead, dead wrong about something fundamental to this film. It's kind of hilarious to me in retrospect, because I spend a lot of time thinking about and analyzing story structure. I'm very smart about a lot of this stuff, but I completely misread this one because I'm a middle-aged white dude who's used to all movies sharing my perspective. And that's how I'd arrived at the erroneous conclusion that this movie is about Jack Skellington.

But it ain't. It's Sally's movie, and Sally is a cypher for every shy thirteen-year-old girl with an interest in body modification. I've shared this with a few fans of the film and the general reaction I get is "yeah, duh," so what I'm about to say here is far from a mind-blowing revelation, but I'm going to recount it here anyway because it's my blog, dammit.

Sally is the hero, it's just not obvious because Jack's the one doing all the protagging, and he's the one with the most clearly defined character arc. He's got the "I want" song at the end of Act I, even though Sally's present for it, and her own "I want" song comes much later. So he certainly feels like the main character, but if you look at the movie as a story about Sally instead, then Jack's really just the object of her affection. His "I want" song is her cri du coeur by proxy. And Jack has made a bone-headed (ahem) decision to take over Christmas that he never would have made if he'd only noticed that what he really wanted was right in front of him if he'd only open his non-existent eyes and see her--I mean come on, she's literally a red-and-green toy, what more do you want!?

Suddenly it makes sense why the movie keeps cutting away from the Jack story to her being sneaky and affectionate from afar. Because her arc is that if she wants to be happy she needs to actually step up and get his attention, in this case by literally saving him from himself. Oh, and the main villain, Oogie Boogie, is a dark version of her, not of Jack, and that's what really cements it for me. He's colorful, but in a garish way. He's also sewn together and stuffed, but he's full of insects and malice, constantly taking instead of giving. And he's saddled with three children instead of being free and maybe I'm taking the metaphor too far.

Anyway. I get it now. I didn't before, but I get it now. Do I like it? Eh. I still don't care for the aesthetic, the songs, Jack, or the rushed plot. But I have a much better appreciation for it than I did two weeks ago. See, I always knew that it wasn't for me, but now I have a much better grasp of who it is for.

Next week, we look at what was supposed to be the swan song for one of the great 80s villains, Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.