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John Scalzi – Why Tim Burton’s Recurring Nightmare Remains So Popular

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From time to time, I find myself in the company of emo boys and goth girls, as one so frequently does these days. And while these sensitive purveyors of darkness may look down on me for my summery color schemes, lack of full-sleeve tattoos and/or corneal piercings, and the fact that I own the most recent Journey album — and enjoy it — I have something that puts them all into kohl-lined awe.

And that is: In the summer of 1993, when I was working as a film critic in California, I visited the studio in San Francisco where Tim Burton and Henry Selick were filming The Nightmare Before Christmas. I “toured” the sets (which meant admiring miniatures from above while not touching anything, lest one messed up hours of animation), coming within inches all the parts of Halloweentown that the emos and goths wished they lived in.

Later, I and other critics were herded into a room for an interview with Burton, Selick and Nightmare composer, Danny Elfman, who was also the singing voice for Jack, the skeletal ruler of Halloweentown. As part of that interview, we saw a rough cut of the section that would become the song “Jack’s Lament.” The animation was done, and so was the music, but the vocal track for Jack hadn’t been laid down yet. So Elfman got up and sang the song live. Perfectly.

Now, as an old school fan of Elfman and his ’80s band Oingo Boingo, this was thrill enough for me. But when I recount it for the gothlets, their eyes get all wide, and then the envy comes. Bitter, black-clad envy, that eats at their soul like a wee hungry gargoyle.

Why Nightmare Persists
But while taunting emos and goths is fun, it also points out something about The Nightmare Before Christmas: A decade and a half after its 1993 release, this strange little musical is more popular than it was when it was released, a fact evidenced by annual re-issues in theaters at Halloween and by yet another DVD edition of the movie released this last Tuesday (the fourth home edition of the film, which also has at least two versions of the soundtrack available on CD and MP3). Nightmare hasn’t managed to eclipse the other Disney musical of 1993 (that would be The Lion King), but it has significantly more social currency among teens, twenty-somethings and even more than a few thirty-somethings, especially the ones who were, are, or want to be, just a little alienated from the mainstream.

Why this film? What’s the secret to the long-running afterlife of this Disney animated musical? There are a number of reasons, but my theory is actually a simple one:

It’s not really a Disney animated musical.

In one sense, this is quite literally inaccurate, as it was released by Disney. But in another sense, it’s also quite literally accurate,
since the film was originally released by Disney under the Touchstone
Pictures banner (i.e., Disney’s banner for adult-themed movies) when
Disney’s then-head Michael Eisner decided that the film was too dark to
be released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner, the usual home of
Disney’s animation work. (This makes one wonder if Eisner actually saw,
say, Pinocchio, which was darker in a number of ways than Nightmare ever was.)

In the context of 1993, Eisner was entirely right. Nightmare is the odd stepchild of its time. The Disney films of this era — Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King
— are all of a piece: Smoothly and gorgeously animated stories of a
young person finding him/herself, with color schemes that used all the
crayons in the box, and music by way of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley,
thanks to Broadway vets Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Tim Rice and pop
star Elton John.

The Anti-Disney Musical — Or Is It?
Nightmare, on the other hand, was none of these things:
Instead of a plucky teen, you have a weary (and indisputably adult)
character, who aside from being dead is jammed to the marrow with
existential ennui, and whose gaunt, skeletal form wasn’t “cute” in any
conventional sense. The film’s palette and themes were either washed
out blacks, oranges and greens, or over-excited neons. The film’s
stop-motion technique — incredibly, this was the first full-length
theatrical release to use it — gave it a twitchy, restless feel. And
where Disney’s musicals took from the sunny side of Broadway, Danny
Elfman borrowed from darker and/or more cinematic lyricists and
composers, most notably Bernard Herrmann and Weill/Brecht, and mixed it
in with his own offbeat theatrical history and musical predilections.
In many ways, Nightmare is the anti-Disney animated musical.

We have to be careful not to overstate things; the film was still
meant for family audiences (even if it does feature Santa Claus being
kidnapped and tortured), and the images, themes and music, while darker
and more sophisticated than, say, anything you might find in Aladdin,
are still accessible, poppy and fun. This is Halloween — but Halloween
is the second largest commercial holiday in the calendar, right after
Christmas. Nightmare is the anti-Disney animated musical —
but it can (and has) been marketed just as effectively those musicals
are, and by the same people.

And in fact, this is the secret to its success: Tim Burton, Henry
Selick and Danny Elfman took Disney money and crafted something that
looks and feels like it’s outside of the mainstream, even as it plays
to it: A pseudo-secret document for the freaks and geeks, who took to
it with love and affection, and don’t have to outgrow it, because it’s
built to appeal to the alienated of all ages. That so many freaks and
geeks (and, yes, others) love it that Disney can wrench continued
profits out of it through continual home video and theatrical
re-releasing suggests that freaks, geeks, emos and goths are, in fact,
solidly part of the mainstream now. Now, there’s a thought.

If this disturbs them and they want to get back out of the current
mainstream, well. I suppose I can let them borrow my Journey album.

scalzi.pngWinner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale, which was released this week. His column appears every Thursday.

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