The Nightmare Before Christmas: Why Being Unique in Hollywood Still Matters
The inescapable marriage of sight and sound is what makes a movie great, versus being another average film amongst the many. Sound is not limited to the static dialogue, but more about how the dialogue influences the characters and the scene. Sight is not just the movement on screen, rather movement in connection with the other characters and, more importantly, the viewer. In Tim Burton’s A Nightmare Before Christmas, this union between sight and sound in film became ever more prolific. He used a visually impressive art-form that changed how characters interacted with each other, effecting the flow and sight of the movie; coupled with original music scores and a unique dialogue experience.
Tim Burton: The Real ARTful Dodger
An important element of the movie comes from the artistic approach Tim Burton decided to go with regarding visualizing the script. Instead of following the traditional Disney trend by simply making another animated film, he decided to take a chance with an art form that wasn’t proven on the large screen. The idea of using a stop motion technique with clay figurines, or Claymation, was not a new idea, but for a full-length feature film it would be considered extremely tedious and troublesome. These minute changes make the characters move just slightly slower than they would in real-time or when digitally animated, meaning a raising of the hand or turning of the head, are much more dramatic. Every scene where a character is walking across the backdrop, is like watching a dancer gracefully move across the stage or an ice skater perfectly in sync with the music. The final scene is a great example of these diminutive changes in posture adding to the drama of the movie. Watching Jack and Sally come together, they appear to “skate” across the scene in each other’s arms.
With Claymation, comes the painstaking task of forming minute changes in the figures position in order to make a scene. Something is captured in these moments that real life motion cannot naturally achieve. The tedious work of making a scene may have inadvertently added to the movie’s artistic style because each scene made you stay with the character, which helps immersion. The scene where Jack is under attack by the army after he had been impersonating Santa Claus is a brilliant example of this technique. He is being heavily bombarded by artillery, but the camera angle barely changes perspective, keeping you planted in the scene, not able to escape, much like Jack. Tim Burton proved that you can have action and drama, without giving the audience seizures with over-the-top action sequences and moving the camera all over the place trying to experience an explosion.
Jack’s Lament and Sally’s Song
When movies reach a certain level of popularity, certain elements tend to stand out more than others. When asking people, one will undoubtedly uncover what about that particular movie is standing out in people’s minds. With Die Hard it’s about the action and dialogue, with The Godfather it’s about the cinematography, with Good Will Hunting it’s all about the writing, etc. A Nightmare Before Christmas is no different. Anyone who watches the film, for no more than twenty minutes knows the pivotal role music plays. Danny Elfman not only wrote and produced the soundtrack, but also provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington. The entire movie swims in music and rhythmic tones, from simple dialogue between characters, to the grandiose cut-scenes.
A Nightmare Before Christmas was released at a time that was very climatic for music in film because it was becoming a dying art. A movie’s soundtrack has always been a huge part of what connects audiences to a movie, but during the latter part of the century, it became more and more prevalent to just add popular songs to a movie soundtrack. While this helped to attract more people to the movie, less creative control over the flow of the movie became a negative side effect. Movies always work better when a song is made for it, versus a song that just compliments it. This became more ubiquitous with non-animated movies first, and even Disney wasn’t immune to this influx of outsourcing music in movies.
A lot more non-animated movies were guilty of this practice first, but the closer towards the end of the century we got, the more animated films incorporated outside artists to help fill their movies. When a person is immersed in a scene and a popular song starts to play, that connection can be lost, and the viewer goes from the movie to thinking about the song and the artist, completely killing their emotional involvement in the scene. The best scene that exposes this dilemma is when Sally sings ‘Sally’s Song’. She feels as if Jack is blinded by ambition and that he can’t see the potential danger of his actions, even though her infatuation with him never wanes. Could Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, or any other popular female artist sing one of their love songs and make it fit? The answer is absolutely, but it would not have been as impactful as a song written specifically for that moment, sang by the actress herself. Tim Burton and Danny Elfman foresaw the problem, and allowed Catherine O’Hara (voice of Sally) to sing all of her own parts.
The Gift of Gab
The film followed a Mary Poppins approach to its dialogue, having each conversation between characters in a song-like form. It was as if each interaction between characters was either at the end of a song or was leading into a song. Directors and producers tend not to play music while there is dialogue between characters because it can be distracting to an audience. How Tim Burton and Danny Elfman overcame this issue during scenes of intense dialogue, was to subtlety play music in the background, and then present the dialogue as a rhythmic dance of words between the characters. The best scene to observe this technique is the fight sequence between Jack and Oogie Boogie. It is as close to Jets versus Sharks as one can get, without completing ripping off Westside Story. If you observe the movie from this perspective, you will notice that the music quietly begins to sneak up on you, then crescendos with the song of that moment.
Sometimes it is easy for us as movie watchers to get so caught up in the visual interpretations on-screen, especially in a movie like this one, that we overlook how the dialogue is influencing us on an emotional level. One would not expect the Pumpkin King to be an understanding and somewhat soft spoken ruler of all things scary, yet that is exactly how Jack is portrayed. The intense passion he has for the townsfolk, and how he speaks to them with such care, helped make Jack an endearing character, and maybe the most underrated leading man in any movie.
The Greatest Love Story Never Told
On the surface, The Nightmare Before Christmas, is nothing more than a children’s movie made for the holiday season crowd. There is the obvious Christmas themed setting with all the characters looking as though they were spawned out of Gumby’s worst dreams. Tim Burton and the crew did a masterful job at giving the kids something to keep them entertained, while giving the older generations the Claymation version of Gone with the Wind.
Once Sally comes into the picture, literally and metaphorically speaking, the intent of the movies’ writers becomes more evident. There are scenes where the relationship between Jack and Sally almost mirror Scarlett (Vivian Leigh) and Rhett (Clark Gable). An undying devotion destined to be marred by fate, only to be reconciled by true love. One can see Jack’s hijacking of Christmas as the Civil War and Oogie Boogie as the Confederates. No scene more depicts the contrast between the two sets of lovers like the final scene where Jack and Sally finally come together, with that huge beautiful moon in the backdrop. The only thing missing was Jack leaning over to Sally and saying, “Frankly Sally, I don’t give a damn!.”
The Nightmare that Saved Movies: The Lasting Legacy of Tim & Jack
No one will argue that that movie industry is still being carried by superhero blockbusters like The Avengers, Deadpool, Captain America, etc. Movie goers are flooded with CGI characters and zany special effects, but the uniqueness of The Nightmare Before Christmas is still very much alive in Hollywood and is still influencing movie makers to this day. With movies like The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Coraline, Wallace & Gromit, Chicken Run, Corpse Bride, and a slew of others; Tim Burton’s approach proved to be everlasting and far reaching.
Originality is the key for longevity in a creative industry. No amount of marketing or pop culture references can ever influence a movie like good dialogue, a unique perspective, and original scores. A Nightmare Before Christmas proved that with a unique perspective on old themes, a movie can rise above the fray and be more revered for how it was made, rather than why it was made.
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