A major criteria for picking Better Late Than Never subjects is incredulity, by which I mean how shocked the rest of the A.V. Club conference room acts upon learning that somebody hasn’t experienced a particular piece of pop culture. And my colleagues were shocked upon learning that I’d never seen Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Their shock shocked me: Nightmare isn’t the most pervasive or universally revered film around. It’s far enough under the radar that 17 years after its release, I couldn’t tell you even the most basic bits of plot. Going in, I knew only that it’s sort of about Halloween and maybe Christmas, and that the main character is named Jack Skellington—and I think I only knew that because lots of people have tattoos of him. Oh, and I know that it’s credited to Tim Burton, even though he didn’t direct it—Henry Selick (Coraline) did.
I could also assume that it’s been pretty successful, based on the 234-disc special edition with super 3-D hologram/scratch-’n’-sniff packaging that Tasha eagerly thrust into my hands before flatly proclaiming that I wasn’t going to like it much. “It’s stop-motion puppets,” she said, “and it’s a musical.” (These are things she knows I am not particularly fond of, unless they’re in Team America: World Police.) So I decided to hold off on learning any more before actually watching the movie. Oh, one more thing I knew: It’s mercifully short. So, unlike with Genevieve’s earth-shattering, debate-sparking BLTN on Ghostbusters, I went into this one with relatively low expectations. Would Jack Skellington wow me enough that I’d want to get a tattoo? Or should I just stick with the one I have, of The Cat In The Hat riding an eight-ball? (Joke copyright Earles & Jensen.)
Now that I’ve watched it, was it better late than never? Sure. I enjoyed The Nightmare Before Christmas just fine—a bit more than I thought I might, even, given the anti-build-up. Going in, I was pretty sure the plot wouldn’t win me over—children’s stories rarely twist or end in surprising ways—but the visuals and some of the songs did. Nightmare looks great, largely, I think, because of how the characters move, and because of the insane attention to detail in most every frame. Regardless of my general dislike of musicals, I give this one plenty of credit for not depending solely on the songs. The stop-motion animation and the jokes, especially the simple, visual ones, were enough to keep me interested—for 75 minutes, anyway.
Nightmare is short, but I would’ve like it considerably better if it had been about 30 minutes shorter, especially since the plot is so simple: The King Of Halloween discovers Christmas, tries to port it over to his world, fails, and (maybe) learns a lesson. I probably say this about 90 percent of all movies, but the romantic subplot drags everything else down (even though I realize it’s necessary to advance the plot): Jack’s stitched-together love interest, Sally, serves mostly to highlight the mad-scientist duck-thing, Dr. Finklestein, who’s great. But that’s a relatively small quarrel with a movie that scoots along pretty well on its own.
Back to what I liked: again, that attention to detail, featured in every corner. Whether it’s a doorbell in the center of the frame or a minor character scuttling past, it’s clear that the people working on Nightmare were emotionally invested in it. Blueprints for skeletal reindeer. A boogieman made out of sackcloth and thousands of bugs. A series of scientific experiments on Christmas-related items. Regardless of the directorial credit, this clearly comes from the soul of Tim Burton—the Tim Burton we fell for in the mid-’80s, not the guy who made the awful Planet Of The Apes remake. As with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and Beetlejuice, there’s a sense of playful menace, with emphasis on the playful in this case.
And I like that this is, ostensibly anyway, a children’s movie that doesn’t feature the usual moralizing, or the desperate need to make scary things safe. The first song, “This Is Halloween,” could frighten the shit out of young kids, and seems acutely aware of that. But it doesn’t shy away from things that go bump in the night, because those things are what make the holiday fun. There’s also a moral ambiguity at play here: Nightmare’s protagonist lives in a scary place. He’s delighted to be worshiped by his own people. And the whole impetus for his story is that he’s bored with his lot in life. His quest is never a particularly moral one: He just sees something that seems fun, and goes after it—even sending mini-goons to kidnap Santa Claus. (And I loved that Santa was pissed at Jack for kidnapping him, instead of telling him it was okay.)
Then there’s that villain, who’s just plain bad—not misunderstood, or prone to changes of heart. No, Oogie Boogie is a serious, murdering badass. He’s about to kill Santa Claus and Sally before he’s stopped, and then he gets murdered himself, in an awesomely gruesome display. That complicated morality is part of the film’s appeal for me. It’s not that I dislike morally upright children’s stories: It’s just rare for them to be done well. (Adult films have the same problems sometimes—just look at The Blind Side.) It’s perfectly appropriate to present an idealized world to little kids, one in which the only slightly scary bad guy learns that being nice is its own reward. (It is!) My son is 5 months old, and I’m going to show him “How The Grinch Stole Christmas!” until he learns the joy of community and sharing. (And if he refuses to learn those things, it’s paddlin’-time.)
But this isn’t a movie for him just yet: He’ll have to graduate through the world of nice for a while, at least until his core values are intact and he can enjoy something a little more ambiguous. As for me, would I watch The Nightmare Before Christmas again? I might pause briefly to watch some of those dizzyingly detailed scenes, like the one in which Jack tests the Christmas components in his lab, or the one in which the duck-doctor builds a copy of himself and gives it half his brain. It turns out that Nightmare offered just what my co-workers told me it would: a fun distraction. I’m a bit surprised it’s reached cultural ubiquity, but I’m also the guy who was sure Avatar would bomb after seeing an early screening.