Thursday, September 26, 2013

Classics: A Review of The Nightmare Before Christmas By Lauren Ennis

The hills are alive with creepiness
For generations of children, fairy tales have served as an introduction to the art of storytelling. The most enduring fairy tales are those that combine memorable adventures with timeless life lessons. Unfortunately, many children’s films and books have lost sight of the function of stories to teach while entertaining, and are little more than time consumers. One recent film, however, managed to relay a classic fairy tale message while telling an innovative tale. 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a truly unique film which takes the familiar clich├ęs of family films and turns them upside in a way that audiences won’t soon forget.

The film opens in typical fairy tale fashion with a narrator transporting the audience to a magical world in which each holiday has its own unique universe. The narrator then introduces the audience to Halloween Town and its host of ghoulish inhabitants as they celebrate their annual Halloween spectacular. At the helm of the festivities is the “Pumpkin King”, skeleton Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon). Despite being the town’s undisputed master of fright, Jack is a sensitive and creative soul in desperate need of understanding. While the town’s residents see his enviable success and categorize him as someone “who has it all”, Jack is actually in the midst of an existential crisis. Although he is aware of and grateful for his success, he finds himself unable to gain any satisfaction in his life and finds himself becoming increasingly apathetic. Fellow outsider Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a Bride of Frankenstein-esque rag doll, understands Jack’s isolation but is unable to overcome her crippling shyness in order to reach him.

After going through the motions as head of the Halloween festival, Jack goes for a long walk in hopes of clearing his mind, and stumbles onto Christmas Town. For him, Christmas Town represents all of the excitement and wonder that is sorely lacking in his own life. He becomes determined to take the magic of Christmas and bring it to his fellow Halloween Towners. Unfortunately, the locals are unable to grasp the concept of Christmas, and can only view it through their Halloween influenced perspective. Frustrated, Jack sets out to discover the true meaning of Christmas and bring it to his town. Of course, like the other Halloween Towners, Jack’s world view is influenced by his Halloween experiences, which causes him to misconstrue the rituals and traditions of Christmas, including the role of Santa Claus (Edward Ivory). Because of his own indifference towards Halloween, Jack assumes that Santa must be equally tired of managing Christmas and in need of a vacation from his holiday duties. He then enlists the help of juvenile delinquents Lock, Shock, and Barrel to bring Santa to meet with him so that they can arrange to switch holidays. This leads to the kidnapping of Santa Claus and his eventual imprisonment in the lair of homicidal gambler Oogie Boogie (Ken Page). When Jack’s Christmas goes horribly awry, it is up to him and Sally to rescue Santa and save Christmas.

In the twenty years since its release, The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a fan favorite amongst both children and adults. One of the key reasons behind the film’s popularity is its universal theme of being true to yourself regardless of the consequences. While the importance of remaining true to yourself is often repeated to children in conventional tales, the film’s use of truly unique characters ensures that the message rings true. “Be true to yourself” is not a convincing argument to most children when it is coming from a perfectly proportioned Disney princess whom children cannot imagine ever felt like outsiders. This same message is far more relatable when delivered by a diverse group of well meaning, but misunderstood creatures. As a result, children can easily relate to and identify with the film’s characters and are more likely to take the film’s central lesson to heart.
One of these things is not like the other...

The film also serves as a reminder to adults to keep their sense of childhood wonder and passion alive. Jack’s greatest obstacle in the film is not Oogie Boogie as the plot would suggest, but is actually his own set of personal demons. After spending countless years conjuring the same scares and pursuing the same goal, he begins to question the meaning and value of his life. This existential crisis mirrors the same dilemma that adults often face when confronted with life’s disappointments. Like Jack, many people find themselves wishing that they could live someone else's more exciting and satisfying life. Although we need variety and new experiences to grow as people, it is even more crucial that we learn to see the beauty and excitement in our own lives. The film demonstrates this fact when Jack saves the day by embracing his Pumpkin King persona. At the film’s finish, he realizes that he does have a worthwhile life and resolves to make next year the ‘best Halloween ever’, proving that he has finally learned the importance of appreciating what he has.

The film also uses its unique tale to reach out to those suffering from depression. At the start of the film, Jack’s behavior and thought processes are those of a text book case of depression. The culmination of his symptoms causes him to feel isolated and unable to find any enjoyment in activities he once loved. To those suffering from depression, this is an all too familiar state of mind, which requires a great deal of effort and help to work through. Because the film is directed towards children, it explores the issues surrounding depression without coming across as preachy or alienating viewers through ‘after school special’ style theatrics. The film’s kid friendly happy ending also shows that there is always hope for a better tomorrow even if it doesn’t feel that way today. For children who grew up with the film and faced depression in their adolescence and adulthood, the film is a friendly reminder that they are not alone and that having depression, or any other mental illness, does not make them less of a person.

Its combination of an intelligent script, awe inspiring visuals, and a sincere message makes The Nightmare Before Christmas a true family classic. The film is equally entertaining for both children, who will be struck by the catchy songs and unique character design, and adults, who will appreciate the films’ use of internal conflict and darker themes. This film shows just how innovative and inspiring family entertainment can be when in the right hands. So kick off your Halloween season with Jack and Sally, I assure you it will be all treat.

Inspiring Goth girls everywhere

1 comment:

  1. Just re-watched it (for like the 1000th time) this weekend and was after doing some research, I began noticing the uncanny similarities between Mr. Oogie boogie and Cab Calloway :)