In which I finally fix what bothers me about ‘Nightmare Before Christmas’

So: I love The Nightmare Before Christmas. I saw the original in the theater, including the theatrical return a couple years ago in 3D. I’ve seen it scads — scads — of times on video, then on DVD (even before I had kids to watch it with). Visually, there’s something new and playful and rewarding to find every time; and of course I’m a Danny Elfman guy from waaay back, so the catchy gothic carols never tire out my ear.

But storywise, something has always bothered me. The story hobbles in circles in the second act, and it has always left me feeling a bit restless. I identified this problem on first viewing, and even though I was able to tamp down my disquiet upon the repeats … man, this problem just won’t stop irritating my craw. And if I had just three things (the ear of director Harry Selick, the trust of screenwriter Caroline Thompson, and a time machine) I have a solution I would offer.

Need a refresher for the story? Here are the major beats you need to know:

1. The hero languishes. The movie opens with the Halloweentown creatures returning from another successful Halloween scarefest. They’re irrationally exuberant. But their leader, Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is feeling down in the dumps. He’s in a rut from years of repetition, singing that “he’d give it all up if he only could.”

Doctors are yet to develop Zoloft for monsters.

2. The hero finds reason to carry on. Jack goes on an aimless walkabout, and he comes upon a circle of mystic portals — each one of these doors leads to “holiday lands.” Jack walks through a door shaped like a Christmas tree, and is transported to a North Pole village. He’s invigorated by the jolly fun he finds in this holiday hamlet. “There are people throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads! They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!” he sings.

It's awfully catchy.

3. The hero proselytizes. Jack returns to Halloween town in a snowmobile laden with Christmas-themed items he’s purloined. He calls a town meeting at once to explain to his fellow monsters about presents and Santa and “the special feelings” found in Christmas town. His fellow monsters are excited by his findings, but for different reasons: They think bows and stockings and such are for spreading horror, not joy. (“Now we pick up an oversized sock, and hang it like this on the wall–” “Oh, yes! Does it still have a foot? Let me see. Let me look! Is it rotted and covered in gook?”)

...bunch of philistines.

This scene begins my confusion: What is Jack trying to accomplish? The monsters are certainly excited about the items he’s found, but he’s unhappy still. I believe he’s trying to tell them “There can be more to life than scaring people,” though he never comes out and says this. Instead, he ends his town hall meeting by muttering, “Might as well give them what they want,” and he proceeds to provide a lurid description of “Sandy Claws” as a fearsome king of Christmas who “sets out to slay with his rain gear on.” The crowd eats this part up, but Jack walks away restless.

What does he want here? Why is it important he infect everyone else with his descriptions of Christmas joy?

4. The hero retreats to think. Jack hides away in his lair, where he muses, “There’s got to be a logical way to explain this Christmas thing.” Using the Scientific Method, he begins a series of silly experiments on ornaments and candy canes, trying to … uh, explain joy scientifically, I guess?

As Nog approaches infinity, the limit of Yule is Fruit-Pi.

This section is mostly a series of sight gags: teddy bears autopsied, candy canes electrocuted, holly berries crushed under microscopes. The end result is that Jack has an epiphany: Rather than explain Christmas, he’ll just take it over. He will replace Santa and deliver toys himself this year.

6. The rest of the movie happens. No need to belabor the rest of the plot: Halloween takes control of Christmas, and hilarity ensues. It’s a fun series of schemes and gags, ending in a perfectly played resolution — it’s just that middle section that bothers me, so let’s double back on it.

Why? Because it’s confusing. And slow. What does Jack want? Since taking over for Santa is a logical course of this plot, why does it take Jack so long to reach that conclusion? Again, what was he trying to accomplish by holding a town meeting and showing everyone his Yuletide spoils?

If he expected them to repent from scaring and adopt a peaceful outlook on life, he should have said so.

If he wanted them to start their own Christmas tradition in Halloweentown, he should have said that, too — after all the Mayor officially endorses such an idea during the song.

So we have an inconclusive scene in which nothing changes for either the hero or his allies. Instead it just harshes his bliss and furthers his funk.

Follow this ambiguity with a long section of Jack doing experiments … to what end? As the skeleton himself says when he boils an ornament in a beaker: “Interesting reaction. But what does it mean?

This section of restiveness from our hero ends with him suddenly — in mid-song even — deciding he doesn’t need to explain it, or to convince any monster to change his ways, he just needs to put on a Santa suit and do Christmas his own way. Which is what we’ve been waiting for him to do anyway.

So here’s the solution: Swap sections 3 and 4. Here’s how it plays out:

* Jack returns from Halloween town with his sack full of goodies. “Where have you been Jack?” cry his worried followers, but he brushes them off. “On an adventure. No time to explain. I’ve got to a lot to digest. I’ll tell you later.”

* Jack performs his battery of tests on his Christmas specimens. “What is this holiday about?” he mutters. “Why are those elves all so happy?” After exhausting himself, Jack realizes that, just like Halloween, Christmas is about spirits, but these are the spirits of giving and joy. By taking over Christmas, Halloweentown can finally share the feeling that he experienced at the North Pole. “Eureka!” he cries. “This year, Christmas will be ours!”

* Jack calls his town meeting. He shares the beribboned boxes and baubles, which entices but confuses the monsters. They want to make it another holiday of horror, but Jack convinces them that it must be different. It must be jolly!

Of course, we’ll see that a monster’s version of jolly is still far off the mark, but at least we’ll see Jack, the monsters, and the audience in complete agreement of what needs to happen next.

Even if you don’t agree with me, I think we can still find complete and total accord on this incontrovertible fact: The Harlequin Demon is the most insanely awesome invention ever.

His mouth goes all the way around his head. ALL THE WAY. AROUND. HIS. HEAD!

Agreed? Agreed.

Happy Halloween.

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