" Kidnap the santa Claus, beat him with a stick."
I hated this film when I was a kid. It was such a favourite in my house I probably saw it three times before my 3rd birthday, and to a simple naive child with undeveloped ideals in regards to movies and Christmas, movies where there to make me happy, while Christmas was there for me to score tons of free shit off relatives and friends, plus so I could worship at the altar of Santa Claus (Brought up on American Television so didn't do the British version) . Yet here is a movie that has a three minute song/setpiece devoted to the many ways in which one could dismember, immolate and otherwise kill Santa Claus gruesomely, for fun. 3 year old me would not stand for this, so any time the idea of watching this film was brought up, I would cry, wail and scream, I would make deals and comprises (usually involving watching Labyrinth instead, which I simply hated and not terrified by. I stand by that. Because its shit.) You want to watch this film? Well I want to take my custom edition playpen cricket bat to your antique Victorian Piano, how about that?
Once I got to an age of proper consciousness, I passed a movie embargo and didn't watch it for like ten years. I would always be tired or sick, or have to study the next day, or go and kill the president of Panama with a fork, things like that. It got long beyond my petty little reason and became one of those things you just do, perhaps because I mistook stubbornness for awesomeness, although the line does blur. But eventually once I got into film in a big way, it became an blemish that needed to be rectified and I watched and realized something. This film was awesome. Beyond awesome. And I'd hated because of how good it was at its job, which was of course scaring the shit out of me. Its a kids horror movie with a soul, with a point, it looks nothing short of beautiful and at the same time its deliciously twisted and fucked up enough that Adults can see entirely different movies from their kids. In many ways it is a traditional Christmas movie, in which everyone comes together in tolerance, in celebration and in learning the true meaning of Christmas (LOL at getting to type that in a sincere context) but its darkness allows for these messages to actually have some value. Its not about good people learning how to be even better at Christmas time, its about monsters, literally, learning it. Its a true fairy tale precisely because it doesn't whitewash evil and darkness out of its world. And that is a rare thing indeed.
" What? Snake Eyes!"
I don't think anyone's going to argue that the main appeal of the movie, is its look but more then that, its feel. Its so rare to see an animated world come to life like this, and while CGI films and traditional Disney style animation can be both be magnetic and ascendant in their own ways, there's something to be said for having something real to hold onto, and the stop-motion does just that. It feels so much less synthetic and so much more organic. You get the idea that director Henry Selick (not Tim Burton, so suck it all of you who got that pub quiz question wrong) takes particular pleasure in crafting Halloween Town, and the varying monsters within. Some of which, scratch that, all of which, are kind of horrifying. There's the zombie boy lead by a chain, there's the goo-monster made from an uncomfortably coloured brown liquid, there's a fairly realistic werewolf. More so then the ones in Buffy anyway. There's a great effort made in not sanitising the threat, the fear of the things. Yes they can be funny. But no doubt is in my mind, just as there wasn't when I was three, that these are gross looking monsters that kill people. Similarly Jack Skellington, our anti-hero, though clearly more accessible then some of the others, is no slouch in that department either. Like a cross between a scarecrow and a skeleton with added spindlyness, the look of that character in and of itself is enough to entirely love this film.
But for me the greatest stroke of genius was whoever decided that this should be a musical. Particularly because the spoken dialogue at times has that 'bare minimum' feel about it. And yes, that could have led into some dangerous Andrew Lloyd Webber territory but thankfully the music is good enough to avoid that ( See that, Andrew Lloyd Webber just got slammed by implication. By implication.) and frankly, one would be tempted to call it Danny Elfman's finest hour, in spite of Edward Scissorhands. In song the story gets to soar as much as the visuals, and because of this it has 3 or 4 scenes to put it up against anything that ever came out of Disney, or even Pixar. The Oogey Boogie song is that perfect blend of hilarious and menacing, and again, whose ever idea it was to make the boogeyman a psychotic '20's gambling man who sings like a member of the New Orleans rhythm and blues revival deserves an Oscar. Love the sequence if only for Santa Claus' hilariously limp replies.
" Oh how horrible our Christmas will be."
But the movie belongs to Jack, and its appropriate then that so do most of the stand out moments, from the graveyard atop ledge extending whilst he sings to the wonderfully rich scene where he discovers Christmas land, which is as one would expect for this movie, heart-warming whilst incredibly creepy at the same time. Its just great to see a kids movie where the hero is so decidedly misguided that he spends 2/3 of the film making a colossal, hubris driven mistake that probably gets many innocent children killed yet is somehow still impossible not to root for. Its the mark of a great character that you're behind them when they're doing terrible things, and that's certainly the case of this movie. Henry Selick went on to make the excellent Coraline last year, and I think what makes both of these films work so well (although I'd say Coraline is perhaps the better film) is that the come from a great storyteller, a director of animation who cares about more then just how a film looks, meaning his films are as refreshing to the brain as they are to the eyes.
I'm not the hugest Tim Burton fan. I think he's made more bad films then good ones, and the good ones all seem to be a very long time ago. Ed Wood is probably the best, perhaps because its Burton moving away from all the things that Burton does. Yet this is probably the best iteration of what Burton came here to do, and ironically it was done by somebody else. Animation seems the perfect place for his mind to cut loose, yet when he tried it with The Corpse Bride it came nowhere near this. A stand alone film in cinema history, both for making stop-motion accessible and for being a seminal kids movie that scares the shit out of them. Even Pixar have never done that. There's flaws, its perhaps a little too simple and characters can speak their intentions a little too literally. But, you know, just look at it.