Film #116: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

film 116 the nightmare before christmas
Rating: 5/5

“Yet year after year,
It’s the same routine
And I grow so weary
Of the sound of screams
And I Jack, the pumpkin king,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.”

Although it’s probably been about ten years since I last watched this, as soon as the opening credits began, I was immediately transported back, and everything felt so completely familiar. Watching the film on a surprisingly undamaged VHS (quite possibly the tape I’ve had longest in my collection – this is one of the few films I’ve owned since my childhood), I couldn’t help but be impressed at just how good The Nightmare Before Christmas is. I liked it as a kid, but as an adult I really appreciate the nuance of it, notice the little details that fill every scene (this time around, I noticed that the Christmas Land folk have pet penguins).

Of course, this is the most quintessentially Tim Burton picture around. His name is synonymous with the film, and its glorious gothic expressionism and unconventional protagonists are so completely and utterly Burtonesque that it seems to exemplify the contemporary auteur’s style even more than Edward Scissorhands. Yet, of course, this is not a Tim Burton picture – not really. In fact, he didn’t even write the screenplay, though the story and characters are based on his concepts. Yes, this is Henry Selick’s picture, and the director has created a vast, rich world, one that he came very close to matching in Coraline some fifteen years later. Tim Burton finally created his own feature-length stop-motion world in 2005 with one of his many collaborations with Johnny Depp, Corpse Bride, and ironically that film never comes close to reaching the same levels of immersive gothic fantasy that Selick’s creations inspire.

The story is probably well known to most people. Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king, has led the inhabitants of Halloween Town in another successful, scare-filled holiday, but is having a mid-life crisis. Knowing that he’s great at his job, nevertheless he craves something new, and finds inspiration when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Land. Overwhelmed by the concept of laughter, joy, and happiness, he returns to his home and announces his plans to do Christmas this year. Yet despite their enthusiasm, the townspeople are incapable of looking beyond their own nature, and their attempts to recreate Christmas with the inevitable Halloween influence are wonderfully misguided, transforming the happiest time of the year into something horribly disturbing. People expect to be scared on Halloween, but no one expects their holiday wreath to kill their granny. (On a side note, they should be praised for managing to organise any kind of Yuletide celebrations in such a short time frame – they start after Halloween, and most shops now begin in September at the latest.)

Jack is understandably the most iconic character in the film, and props to Selick and his animators for bringing such a warmth and emotion to what is essentially a skeleton. When he first lands in Christmas Land – the warm colours, cosy homes and twinkling lights in stark contrast to the grey, almost-monochrome world of Halloween Town – his amazement and sense of wonder is instantly conveyed. With only the slightest change in eye-socket-size, Jack Skellington is vulnerable, terrifying, childishly enthusiastic, and world-weary. The rest of the characters are afforded just as much care and attention. Halloween Town is filled with all the creatures and grotesquerie that your nightmares can conceive – all the Universal monsters are present in some guise, and there’s a wonderful array of new characters too. Among my favourites, it’s hard not to love the Mayor, with his alternating faces, and Oogie Boogie, the only real villain in the film, and one of my favourite villains in general. His jazz-inspired number, gambling with the captured Santa Claus’s life, is wonderfully catchy, and genuinely intimidating.

This brings me onto the final point – the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas. While there has(understandably, I would say) been a critical backlash towards Tim Burton in recent years, and also with his continuing collaborations with people who once seemed inspired and now appear unoriginal and lazy, composer Danny Elfman is a perfect match for the unconventional filmmaker. A household name – a rarity for screen composers – Elfman’s soundtrack is perfect here, bringing real emotion to the little stop motion characters on screen. And it’s perhaps surprising to realise just how much of a musical this is – in fact, almost the entire story is relayed in song, and Elfman’s score permeates every scene regardless, bringing life and atmosphere to both Christmas Land and Halloween Town alike.

Although today The Nightmare Before Christmas has become slightly tainted by the over-saturation of film-related products – it’s become one of the ultimate “alternative” films for angsty youngsters, and for a while it seemed like every emo or goth came complete with a Jack Skellington backpack – ignoring all the merchandising and paraphernalia, the film itself remains a triumph. It’s a small world, filled with big characters with even bigger plans, yet at its core, it’s a tender romance, and a film about accepting who you are, about learning to embrace your own natural weirdness. As morals go, it’s a pretty good one.

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Film #115: But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)

film 115 but i'm a cheerleader

Rating: 3.5/5

“Oh my god… they were right. I’m a homo. Oh, my god!”

With its lurid colours and Stepford-style 50’s inspired kitsch, But I’m a Cheerleader revels in its campness. Although slightly quaint today – gay rights have come along in leaps and bounds in the last fifteen years – it tackles a serious topic in a overtly tongue-in-cheek manner, revealing the absurdity and hypocrisy of the entirely real schools and camps that promise to rid people of their undesirable homosexual tendencies. In doing so, the film takes a light-hearted satirical dig at the often Christian-based groups who believe that being gay is a lifestyle choice, with heterosexual living being the only desirable, “normal” way of living, while simultaneously downplaying the religious aspect of such camps. Although Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is openly Christian, and the facility her straight-laced parents send her is clearly inspired by the Christian “conversion camps”, once the girl’s lodged at True Directions, there is no real mention of religion in the rest of the film. While this seems slightly like a missed opportunity, it safeguards against possible backlash – despite the controversial subject matter, the film is inoffensive and entertaining, with the blossoming romance at its core often surprisingly tender.

Megan is first introduced living her normal life – she has a boyfriend, although she doesn’t appear to like kissing him much, says grace before dinner, is polite and well spoken, and is a cheerleader. Arriving home one day, she finds herself confronted with her well-meaning friends and family, who proceed to inform her of her latent homosexuality. She has to be a lesbian, because she’s a vegetarian. She has pictures of women in her locker, and posters of gay icons on her bedroom walls. Despite her insistence that she’s not gay, she’s packed off to True Directions, a Barbie-esque residential facility in the middle of nowhere, where she has to complete five steps before she graduates, a happy and well adjusted heterosexual. At the camp, she meets a small but varied group of other teens – an androgynous girl with a shaved head, a flamboyant boy, a Jew (further distancing the film from its overtly Christian inspirations), a goth, a varsity quarterback, and a girl called Graham (Clea DuVall), who seems certain to be ejected from the course due to her insolence and disdain for the whole project.

There are plenty of funny moments – the group’s admissions regarding what “made them gay” are particularly absurd, ranging from “my mother got married in pants” to “I was born in France.” Curiously, however, despite the film taking great pains to show that being gay doesn’t mean necessarily conforming to the expected stereotype, these are almost validated by Megan’s realisation that she is a lesbian – despite their “evidence” being entirely circumstantial, her family and friends are ultimately proved right. In contrast, True Direction’s methodology conforms entirely to heterosexual gender stereotypes. The girls all wear frilly pink dresses and practise childcare and cleaning, the boys dress in blue and learn mechanics and sports. All the tasks are, however, saturated in homoeroticism, which is particularly obvious with the boys’ classes – “accidental” pelvic thrusting during a car maintenance class, for example. It’s not exactly subtle, but it’s effective, bringing a surreal camp twist to everyday activities – in the end, the film seems to be saying, there’s queerness in everyone.

At its core, of course, is Megan’s relationship with Graham, and it’s a slowly developing romance that delicately reveals the intricacies of flirtation. Ironically, of course, if her parents hadn’t made her confront her unrealised gayness, Megan would quite possibly have lived out her days in precisely the kind of denial True Directions aims to teach, shacked up with her jock boyfriend in a sexless marriage. Instead, her incarceration at the facility enables her to finally stop living a lie – admitting her homosexuality is the first step, and a gay relationship is the inevitable conclusion. It’s in the conclusion that the film really falters – there are no surprises (except the discovery that Megan’s cheerleading abilities are thoroughly underwhelming), and it ends abruptly. Megan and Graham are the only characters who really find any kind of resolution, and it’s a shame that the fates of the majority of the True Directions camp remain unknown. Do the camp’s male mentor Mike (played by uber famous drag queen RuPaul) and the owner’s obviously gay son finally acknowledge their attraction for each other? Is the conversion really a success when only a tiny fraction of students end up graduating? Do the graduates accept their gayness, or do they live in denial? Is there a happy ending for anyone, really? Who knows. Yet despite the weak ending, the film itself is entertaining, revelling in campness and knowingly addressing the nuances of gender and sexuality in particularly unsubtle ways. Fun, light-hearted, flamboyant yet touching, But I’m a Cheerleader starts to wear thin in the end, and its satire might not be as biting as people might like, but it’s a welcome alternative to the traditional teen/ high school movies so prevalent in the late 90s.