Happy 15th birthday, Jack Skellington

Happy 15th birthday, Jack Skellington

Posted by Sean Stangland on Mon, 10/20/2008 - 18:41

On Sept. 24, 1993, I wound up at an opening-night show of the witless college football flick "The Program" at the Cineplex Odeon at Town & Country. The entire Wheeling High School football squad, from freshman to varsity, was there. (No, I wasn't on the team.) Aside from the now-deleted scene of players lying in the middle of the road as a college prank, the only thing I remember about that trip to the theater was one of the trailers I saw. It ended up rolling twice in a row, prompting groaning and swearing from many of the jocks sitting around me.

That trailer was for "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

Little did I know that Tim Burton and director Henry Selick's stop-motion masterpiece would still be a cultural phenomenon 15 years later. The tale of Jack Skellington trying to inject a little Christmas spirit into Halloween Town is probably more popular now than it ever has been, and one can only speculate how much of that success is owed to your local mall's goth boutique.

I didn't catch "Nightmare" in its first theatrical run (nor have I seen its 3D re-releases, which is a shame), and mostly regarded it as an interesting curiosity when I saw it on video. But with the death of traditional animation techniques in the wake of "Toy Story," my growing appreciation for "Nightmare's" staggering craftsmanship -- it took animators three years to complete the 76-minute film -- has vaulted it onto my list of all-time favorites. Danny Elfman's songs also have plenty to do with that, especially "What's This?" and "Jack's Lament.”

A new special-edition DVD and Blu-Ray release of the film put it back in the blogosphere a few weeks ago, and I read a lot of strange comments complaining about the kids who have embraced the movie. Take Alex Riviello's DVD review from CHUD.com, for example: "... most people might have gotten sick of the crowd that's latched onto this movie like it was a coupon for free black nail polish at Hot Topic." So goth and emo kids are not supposed to love a movie about an outcast subverting the world's most commercial holiday into a celebration of monsters and shrunken heads? (Of course, this is from the same guy who, later on in his review, says Disneyland's annual "Nightmare" makeover of their Haunted Mansion attraction "looks as boring and as much a waste of time as the original ghostly ride was." Blasphemy, sir.)

Evanescence singer Amy Lee performs "Sally's Song" at
Disney's El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood after an introduction
from Danny Elfman himself.

Speaking of Disneyland, I can tell you two characters dominate its landscape these days: Jack Sparrow and Jack Skellington. "Nightmare" merchandise is, ironically, everywhere at The Happiest Place on Earth -- or at least it is during the holidays, when Burton's cast of characters is most appropriate. I don't really peg Tim Burton as someone who would enjoy Disneyland, but he must enjoy the rampant commercialization of his brazenly anti-commercial project in a post-modern sense. (Or he could be as big a corporate whore as anyone -- this is the man who directed two "Batman" movies and remakes of "Planet of the Apes" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," after all.) No matter what his opinion, “Nightmare” will be Burton’s great legacy, and why shouldn’t it be? It’s his story, his aesthetic, his composer and his actors (Paul Reubens, Catherine O’Hara and Glenn Shadix are among the Burton regulars in the cast) contributing to a classic of the medium.

The cultural impact of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” continues; Disney just released a compilation called ”Nightmare Revisited” featuring artists from Marilyn Manson to Plain White T’s performing the film’s entire soundtrack. Elfman apparently approved the project, seeing as he contributed narration to two tracks. Amy Lee’s version of “Sally’s Song” earned a spot on my iPod after I saw her perform it on “The Tonight Show” a few nights ago. The first 3D re-release in 2006 was accompanied by a few tracks like this -- Manson’s “This is Halloween” is a hold-over from it -- but the new ones are overall much better. (Except for Flyleaf’s embarrassing cover of “What’s This?,” which is what most people will exclaim if they ever have the misfortune of hearing it.)

Although I can find no evidence of it online, a giant banner hanging in the lobby of the AMC 30 in South Barrington informs us that "Nightmare" will return to the big screen, in Disney Digital 3D, this Friday. Seeing “Meet the Robinsons” last year in Disney’s 3D process convinces me it will be worth the time and money.

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