by Kim Newman
Under the direction of Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King, the people of Halloweentown spend the whole year planning the tricks and frights they unleash on the world each October 31st. After yet another successful Halloween, Jack feels trapped in a rut. Wandering into a forest and through a door in a tree, Jack comes upon Christmastown, which is ruled by Santa Claus, and is struck by the notion of taking over this other holiday. Sally, a rag doll abused by her Frankensteinian creator, loves Jack and worries that his ambitions will lead to disaster. Jack despatches Lock, Shock and Barrel, Halloween’s prominent trick or treaters, to kidnap Santa Claus, and orders Sally’s creator to make a team of reindeer to pull a coffin-shaped sleigh. The rest of the townsfolk try to make Christmas presents, but are unable to make anything that isn’t scary. Lock, Shock and Barrel, after mistakenly kidnapping the Easter Bunny, snatch Santa and, against Jack’s orders, turn him over to Oogie Boogie, a malevolent creature who is too extreme even for Halloweentown.
Sally whips up a fog on Christmas Eve to prevent Jack’s sleigh taking off, but Jack’s ghost dog Zero guides the team with his glowing nose. Jack distributes presents to children, who are terrified by various unleashed creatures, prompting the army to try to blast the Santa impersonator out of the sky. Realising his error, Jack returns to Halloweentown, defeats Oogie Boogie and releases Santa, who sets things right on Earth. Jack, having learned his lesson, admits that he reciprocates Sally’s love.
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This animated feature is billed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, although co-producer Burton neither directed nor wrote it. He did, however, originate the characters and story, which date back to the period when he was an animator in the Disney galleys, toiling on The Fox and the Hound and discomforting the management with the shorts Vincent and Frankenweenie. It is to these underrated (and underseen) films that the current feature is closest in animation style and a gentle macabre feel, far more benevolent than that of such obvious influences as Charles Addams and Edward Gorey. Through the work of Henry Selick and writers Michael McDowell (of Beetlejuice) and Caroline Thompson (of Edward Scissorhands), this feels like another of Burton’s veiled experiments in autobiography (cf. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood), as it deals with the frustrations of a one-note creator who wants to break out and do something else, only to learn that he should stick with what he does best.
Considered ‘risky’ because of its ‘darkness’ Nightmare is actually far less unsettling in its implications than such ‘unproblematic’ Disneys as The Little Mermaid (message: it’s all right to be a bitch if you’re cute and privileged) or The Lion King (alpha males have a divine right to rule the jungle). Halloweentown does have its genuine nasties, like the infantile Frankenstein who created Sally, and the bag-of-worms Boogie Oogie (seemingly related to the cartoon incarnation of Cab Calloway who once co-starred with Betty Boop). But most of its residents – from the two-faced mayor through sundry werewolves and vampires to uncategorisable Burton creations with all-round mouths and or too many eyes – are as mushy-hearted and eager to please as the wistful skull-on-a-stick Jack. Santa Claus, understandably cross for most of the film, seems far more a tyrant than the Pumpkin King and, regardless of the makers’ stated or unconscious intentions, most audiences will derive far more pleasure from the hilarious gag sequences of Jack’s gruesome Christmas presents terrorising a cross-section of multi-racial children than they will get from the perfunctory follow-up scenes showing Santa putting things right.
The grotesques in Burton’s films are harmless and usually pathetically lovelorn, save for those bloated freaks (Penguin, Joker, Oogie Boogie) whose malevolence keeps the plot boiling. If his slight distance means that Nightmare seems like a film about rather than by Tim Burton, there are also signs that the collaborators, gaining the upper hand, have flattened out his tendency to all-over-the-show plotting and simplified his sometimes over-fussy designs. The streak of psychotic knowingness that will presumably overflow in the forthcoming Ed Wood is represented not only in an evocation of Ray Bradbury and Mad Monster Party, but in adapting the plot of the well-remembered cult disaster Santa Claus Conquers The Martians. Although a fragile conceit, The Nightmare Before Christmas is certainly more worthy of your attention than any Disney 2-D cartoon since Basil – The Great Mouse Detective, and has a rich, inventive score by Danny Elfman (who also provides Jack’s singing voice), which shows just how inadequate the trite pseudo-Broadway muzak of Menken, Ashman and Rice has become.
Sight and Sound, December 1994