Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, June 13, 2014

Director Report Card: Henry Selick (1993)

So here's the concurrent report card I promised to go along with my Tim Burton reviews. Covering Burton and Selick's careers at the same time is logical since the two are irreversibly intertwined. Originally, I was just going to review "The Nightmare Before Christmas" as a Recent Watch. However, I've been wanting to talk about "Coraline" for a while now. I figured why not throw in "James and the Giant Peach" and "Monkeybone" while I'm at it? This dismissive attitude definitely does a disservice to Selick though, who is an immensely talented and interesting guy, whose career has frequently been overshadowed by another name.

1. The Nightmare Before Christmas

Henry Selick directed the most popular and enduring animated cult classic of, probably, all time. Originally considered a red-headed stepchild by Disney, shuffled out under their Touchstone label, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has become a massive money maker for the studio. A hit that popular and renowned should have made Henry Selick a world famous name. Instead, he had the misfortune of directing an amazingly successful and popular film that had another director’s name above the title. It’s a popular misconception that Tim Burton directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” This misconception has led people to believe that everything Selick has directed has been a Tim Burton joint. While the film is deeply indebted to Burton’s sensibilities, the film is undeniably Selick’s work.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” becoming such a beloved classic is due to numerous reasons. The story blatantly recalls familiar Christmas special conventions. Jack Skellington’s decision to take over Christmas for a year superficially resembles “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” an admitted influence. Finding a passage way to another world, hidden away in the middle of the forest, recalls countless other fairy tales, lending a mythic quality to the story. In a more general sense, the story’s construction of Jack growing tired of his life, exploring something new, and rediscovering a love for his passion is a plot outline even the youngest kid could be familiar with.

The archetypal nature of Jack’s arc speaks to something else as well. It might not be immediately obvious but “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is about a guy’s mid-life crisis. Jack is disillusioned with fame. Without saying too much about it, the audience can presume that he’s worked hard to reach his status as the Pumpkin King. Now having achieved that goal, he finds it unfulfilling. Being the scariest motherfucker in Halloween Town, and having the citizens constantly remind him of it, doesn’t make him happy. He’s reached the middle point of his life and now wonders if anything else can happen. Christmas isn’t the best fit for a living skeleton nor a town of ghouls and monsters. Jack isn’t interested in hearing that, pursuing his new obsession doggedly. Only after that new dream falls apart does he realize how much his established life means to him. Would it be reading too much into it to say that this film might be a post-“Batman” Tim Burton reflecting on his own success? Probably. Yet the basic themes are still there in the story.

The film also seems to have filled a void in the holiday tradition. The idea of a special, fantasy land devoted to each holiday probably existed before this one. However, the film truly crystallized that concept in the public’s consciousness. For those of us that spend all year planning for the next Halloween or Christmas, it’s a very appealing idea. Secondly, the movie provided Halloween with a face. Christmas has Santa Claus, Easter has the Easter Bunny. Even Thanksgiving has the generic ideas of turkeys and pilgrims to represent it. Halloween, for all its traditions and symbols, never had a character to identify with the day. Jack Skellington is certainly much better known then the obscure Stingy Jack or the nonexistent Great Pumpkin. For many, the film and its mountains of merchandise has become as much a part of the holiday as trick or treating or carving pumpkins.

Selick is underrated not just because another director frequently gets credit for his work. He shows a fantastic visual eye. Stop-motion animated films in the past, probably due to the complicated nature of the art form or low budgets, tended to be shot in a very flat style. Look to the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials of the past for an example. (The film being made in this format is, itself, a reference to those iconic, if cheap, specials.) In “Nightmare,” the shooting is boldly cinematic. This is evident from the opening scene, where a first person camera dives through a door. The moving camera is strikingly deployed during several sequences. The camera slowly moves with Jack as he steps down the curling hill. The audience swooshes with him as he glides through Christmasland. The first person camera is used a few times, like when Santa Claus is forced down a tube or a jack-in-the-box is filled. It probably doesn’t have much to do with the film’s enduring popularity but “Nightmare” is one of the best shot animated films of its era.

Selick’s contribution should not be overlooked. Yet Burton’s sensibilities undeniably lead the film. The movie brought his sketchbook to life. The exaggerated characters seem to come in two styles. Jack, Sally, or supporting members like Dr. Finklestein or the Devil are rail thin. Their limbs are long and gangly with broad shoulders being their sole extending features. Other cast members, like Santa, Oogie-Boogie, or the Zombie family, are rotund and low to the ground. Their legs are stumpy and thick, their heads growing out of invisible necks. Compare Jack to Edward Scissorhands. The similarities are obvious. Moving pass the characters, Halloween Town carries on many of the director’s trademark visuals. The buildings, with their odd angles and swirling staircases, are taken straight from Expressionistic cinema and classic monster movies. The grey stone, Gothic gates, and slouching towers recall both Burton’s work on “Batman” and “Scissorhands.” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is the most Tim Burton-y movie that Tim Burton didn’t actually make.

The film is also full of Burton’s reoccurring themes. The director’s specific fascination with contrasting Christmas with the macabre only became explicit in his last two film. However, the filmmaker’s entire career is built on fusing the mundane with the fantastic, with everyday suburban settings contrasting against ghastly elements. The citizens of Halloween Town grossly misunderstanding the holiday, by making monstrous gifts out of dead animals, is mostly played for laughs. But both Halloween and Christmas are holidays based around childhood whimsy, about accepting something impossible on a simpler level. Connecting the two makes sense.

As far as memorable images or sequences go, the film is full of them. An early moment, that made the poster, has Jack stepping down a hill that unfolds under his foot. The advertising department were wise to slap that scene on the posters, as it's iconic, unique, and unforgettable. Another moment that always sticks out to me features no dialogue. In order to escape her master, living doll Sally tosses herself from a tower. An unusually dark moment for a kid’s movie, the camera focuses on her dismembered body. Sally, of course, springs back to life, sewing her shattered limbs back into place. By leaving dialogue out of the moment, it brings the haunting tone to the forefront. The film’s intense visual sense reaches it peak in the last act, as Jack confronts the villain in his lair. The skeletal hero swoops around swirling blades or blasting guns. The color is intense and the movement, when you imagine how much work must have gone in to it, is especially impressive.

The best sequences are tied directly into the film’s musical numbers. It’s impossible to separate what’s good about the movie from its music. “This is Halloween” is a bold opening statement. The animated ghosts swirling through the Gothic tombstones or, my favorite, the jack o’lanterns falling onto iron gates are fantastic images. The camera swirls around each creature as they introduce themselves. The Thing Under the Stairs gets probably the most dramatic introduction, though the witches riding out of a well are a close runner-up. The sequence concludes with the amazingly dynamic image of a scarecrow, caught aflame, leaping into a fountain. The song itself is extremely catchy and gave the holiday the anthem it desperately needed.

“Jack’s Lament” is probably my favorite musical sequence in the film. Jack sadly miming his way through a moody graveyard is brought to life fantastically. “What’s This?” is another standout as the hero swings around the Christmas setting. I love the cotton candy smoke clouds coming out of the toy train or the silhouettes of happy elves seen through windows. Jack’s spider-like movement is graceful. “Making Christmas” is another stand-out number, incorporating quite a bit of humor with the music, while also giving some of the supporting town members a clearer spotlight. The “Oogie Boogie’s Song” is another atmospheric moment, the black-light effects establishing that character’s domain as a very different place.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is also fantastically paced. At a short 75 minutes, the film moves along at a rocket’s pace. The film understands the number one rule of musicals: That each song and dance scene has to advance the story. There’s not a single bit of narrative fat on these bones. “This is Halloween” introduces the film’s world. “Jack’s Lament” gave us a succinct look into the lead character’s head, letting us understand his motivations better then dialogue could. “What’s This?,” repeatedly used in countless unrelated trailers, shows us the effect the discovery of Christmas has on Jack’s psyche. “The Town Meeting Song” perfectly shows Jack trying to introduce the holiday to his natives and them not quite grasping the point. “Jack’s Obsession” has the main character coming to grips with his own interest in Christmas. “Kidnap the Sandy Claws" and “Oogie Boogie’s Song” introduce the film’s antagonists in full. The finale brings both holidays together in harmony. “Nightmare” balances its story and music expertly, never letting one overpower the other.

If the film is the most Tim-Burton-y movie ever made, the score is the most Danny-Elfman-y score ever made. The music brings together everything the composer likes. You’ve got souring strings, a creepy choir, jaunty brass, and sweeping orchestration. Elfman himself provides Jack’s singing voice, an element of the film that is impossible to overlook. Elfman’s incredibly powerful vocals, ranging from high-pitched laughs to raspy baritones, is the centerpiece of many of the songs. Elfman’s sharp delivery distinguishes his songs here from his work with Oingo Boingo. Elfman’s powerful vocal performance certainly stands out against Chris Sarandon’s blandly heroic work as the talking Jack.

One thing you could legitimately criticize Burton’s previous films for is his inability to handle a romantic subplot in a meaningful way. Enter Henry Selick, who creates a more captivating love story between two puppets then Burton could create with flesh-and-blood actors. Sally is a fairly fascinating character. Her relationship with Dr. Finklestein, voiced by a perfectly raspy William Hickey, is weirdly unclarified. The character appears to have been created as a mate but is treated more like a rebellious teenage daughter. Her interest in Jack begins as unrequited. Her first attempts to reach him are sidelined by the Christmas-obsessed hero. How this makes her feel is captured fantastically during “Sally’s Song,” probably the darkest song in the movie, a haunting lament of unrequited love. She not quite a damsel in distress, as she at least tries to rescue Santa before being captured. Finally, after saving her and dealing with his own problems, the two realize a mutual connection. The final image, of the two embracing on the snow-covered hill, before a burning yellow moon, is heart-warming in how it wraps up the story. Catherine O’Hara’s quivery vocal performance is suited fantastically to the character.

In light of Burton frequently receiving sole credit for the movie, it’s been easy to dismiss his contributions totally in favor of crediting just Henry Selick. Ultimately, the film’s creative and financial success is equally the effort of Selick, Elfman, and Burton. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a beautifully realized fable, with amazing visuals and unforgettable music. [Grade: A]

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