The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Nightmare Before Christmas: Why, Exactly?

Written by: Catastrophe Waitress, Special to CC2K

Image Once upon a time going to the movies was a fashionable occasion:  a treat for the end of the week, an excuse to tickle hands with that dreamboat soda jerk, an affordable alternative to the banalities of picket fence culture (an hour of transportation to a dreamy otherworld where cloaked villains and fair damsels mingled with monsters and dancing animals).  

Today the theater is less of an experience as it is a distraction—something to fill the lonely gap between Happy Hour and Beer Pong.  Buying a move ticket has become synonymous with buying two hours of gratuitous sensory stimulation.  And to keep abreast with the general public’s decreasing attention span and increasing hunger for The Best!/The Biggest!/The Latest!, filmmakers have upped the ante for their cinematic successors with explosive action sequences and brain-blasting special effects.  So what’s a recent film school grad to do?  Produce a well-intentioned, self-exploratory visual memoir with the hope that maybe, just maybe, the “creative director”-slash-computer lab aide at the student film center will show the low-budget masterpiece on “free” night?  Of course not.  Naïveté may be endearing on the big screen, but in real life it’s borderline pathetic, especially in the cutthroat filmmaking industry.

As movies stray farther from the Ivory Tower of Modesty, towards an eerily high-gloss territory, one has to wonder:  how does an industry compete against itself?  What happens when filmmakers run out of ways to dazzle their clientele?  The answer:  gimmicks.  The extra credit answer:  retro reinvention (of gimmicks).  Humans are naturally curious, and whenever something remotely resembling “sensation” is released a buzz is created (see:  Cabbage Patch dolls, Tickle Me Elmo, iPhone), regardless of how pointless the ‘something’ actually is (see:  Cabbage Patch dolls, Tickle Me Elmo, iPhone).  3D filmmaking is not new, per se, but it’s certainly no longer mainstream.  Every year companies attempt to revive an old idea, disguised in new packaging, and every year society consumes those old ideas as furiously as they did the year before, and the year before that. 

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of those films that people walk away from without thinking, “Wow, how could an early film technique combined with state-of-the-art technology make this better?”  However, I remember being extremely excited upon hearing of its 3D release.  Why?  Perhaps it was a combination of childhood nostalgia and nostalgia for an era that I never had the opportunity to experience.  3D cinema had its commercial peak in the mid-1950s, and a decade later earned a revival that lasted well into the 70s.  But in recent years the push for visual realism has prompted a sophisticated slant, with computer graphics cornering the market.  Because of this, the idea of donning a pair of cardboard glasses seems backwards, unnecessary.  After all, with visuals as crisp as the current standard, it seems rather pointless to embrace an archaic gimmick meant solely to arouse an immediate response.  Right?  Right? 

Technological face-lift notwithstanding, Nightmare retains most of its charms:  the simple, albeit bizarre story, the melodramatic music, the harmlessly grotesque characters, and Burton’s skill at balancing sinister and silly.  The 3D format neither adds anything new, nor detracts from the original.  It’s simply different.  Occasionally I forgot I was even watching a revamped edition (perhaps I was expecting the 3D element to be more, well, obvious).  Jack Skellington still prowls spookily throughout Halloween Town, musically musing on the desire for something “new” (see, even the animated dead are curious), his uncanny voice warbling with Tim Curie-like bravado; it’s still an engaging film, only the novelty of witnessing demented characterization has become the novelty of witnessing demented characterization sort of “leap” from the screen.  The more I think about it the more I wonder what impelled Burton to re-release Nightmare as a 3D picture, inasmuch as the original with its stop action animation was already a visual accomplishment.  That being said, the cynical adult in me is going to shut her mouth for a moment to let the child in me wrap up this long-winded monologue.

The point I’m trying to make is this:  while the overall effect of witnessing such an offbeat childhood “classic” being transformed into a kind-of Frankenstein version of the original was, at times, unsettling, I must admit that the experience of wearing those silly goggles was worth the aforementioned underwhelming visual product.  For the first time in years watching a movie felt like a special occasion—my treat for the end of the week.  Perhaps this emotional response is ultimately more important than any intellectual misgivings.  Or maybe it was the twenty-something couple sitting next to me, singing word-for-word the entire Nightmare song catalogue, wide-eyed glee apparent behind their geek-chic 3D glasses.