“This is Halloween. This is Halloween. Halloween! Halloween!”
That’s the sound of our sons chant-singing while pulling plastic pumpkins, bats, skeletons and other decorations out of the attic the other day for spreading around the house. They picked up the song because my wife and I are enormous fans of Henry Selick’s haunting masterpiece The Nightmare Before Christmas
, and we tend to butcher Danny Elfman tunes when given the chance.
But our kids haven’t seen Selick’s Nightmare, mainly because I think it might give them nightmares of their own. Still, that doesn’t mean the time isn’t right for you and your kids to venture through those ominous stop-motion trees that serve as gateways to the holiday worlds of old, where Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, presides over some gruesome ghouls and goblins.
The point of this column, as stated in our first installment
, is to help transition families from animated to live-action features all ages can enjoy. But for this week, I’m breaking from tradition and backtracking into an animated story with mature themes that parents likely haven’t shared with their kids yet. So, let’s kidnap Santa Claus, deliver him to Oogie Boogie, and figure out when you can watch The Nightmare Before Christmas
with your kids.
Red Flags: “There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads!”
From the imagination of Tim Burton (obvious, once you’ve seen it), Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas pays tribute to multiple year-end holiday specials – from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to How the Grinch Stole Christmas -- and is a perfect October watch with your kids to get them in the mood for Halloween’s frights.
Yet there’s far more Nightmare than Christmas on screen despite (or, perhaps, because of) Jack Skellington’s best efforts. The most significant, game-changing red flag associated with Selick’s Nightmare is this: Are your kids ready for the horrific land of Halloween?
All sorts of morbid beasts call this disturbing, drab realm home, from the monsters living under our beds to the lumbering Uncle Fester creature with a hatchet buried in his head. And if your kids endure to the film’s second half, they’re rewarded with Oogie Boogie, a canvas sack of terror who kidnaps and tortures Santa. Later, it’s revealed that this villain’s made of bugs. Can you think of anything more disgusting?
Once you get past the shock off all these terrors collected in one spot, however, your kids likely will notice that Jack and his singing minions -- strange as this may be to say – are actually kind of sweet. They take pride in their year-round work of scaring kids on Halloween. “I believe it was our most horrible yet,” Jack proudly boasts of the most recent season, even as he’s nagged by a lack of fulfillment he can’t quite put his bony finger on.
Nightmare, at heart, is a musical about chasing one’s dreams, and Danny Elfman’s original songs are fantastic, but their messages might get lost in the presentation. “Jack’s Lament,” crooned in front of a golden moon, is inspirational if your kids can decipher the sentiment through his sorrows. And the buoyant “What’s This?” might be my favorite musical sequence ever committed to film, but more on that in this week’s Green Flags section.
Parents just need to remember that, while animated, Nightmare is as macabre as a live-action Burton film, and showing this to them before their ready could scare them off of Halloween, Christmas and all movies, in general.
Green Lights: “Interesting reaction. But what does it mean?”
I’m exaggerating. Yes, Nightmare is more gothic than Selick’s also-excellent James and the Giant Peach (which we’re bound to discuss in the When Can I Watch column). But there are viable lessons nestled in Jack’s story that can be shared with your children.
Some are more obvious than others. Jack’s caught in a rut, and no matter how good he is at terrifying children, he’s overwhelmed by a desire to try something different. Nightmare reminds us that a simple visit to someplace new can get our creative juices flowing. Watch Jack’s emotional transformation while on his wondrous trip through Christmas Town. Of course, we’re told the grass is always greener on the other side. But it’s different when you didn’t even realize such spectacular grass (or, in this instance, snow) even existed until you’ve seen it with your own eyes.
That’s the underlying beauty of Selick’s work. Seasonal specials Burton cribbed from when putting Nightmare together tried to put a description on the warm glow of Christmas cheer. Nightmare, however, manifests what Jack calls “that special kind of feeling in Christmas land” through its marriage of stop-motion animation and warm, delightful song. The musical numbers in Nightmare are inspired, though the high water mark has to be “What’s This?,” the number Jack sings with wide skeleton eyes as he drinks in the seasonal glory that is Christmas for the first time. The scene puts me in the holiday spirit every time I watch it, whether it’s Dec. 24 or the middle of July. The seasonal sentiment is there in the fiber of the moment, and its as authentic as chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
Watching Nightmare for this column, I wanted to ask my own kids what Christmas means to them. Similar discussions could highlight a few things you didn’t expect, and might even lead to some new holiday traditions around your house.
This is also a great time to explain the process of stop-motion animation to your computer-animated-savvy kids. Before Pixar polished the modern process, stop-motion had a few days in the sun. In fact, I’ve started watching old Wallace & Gromit shorts on Netflix Instant with my youngest son (he’s 3), and he’s enamored with this bulbous, beautiful style of animation. Your kids likely will be amazed at the painstaking process that goes into building a feature through this creative method. The new Nightmare Blu-ray and DVD combo that recently hit shelves boasts all sorts of behind-the-scenes featurettes you can use to educate your children. You’ll learn a thing or two, yourselves.
I want to go younger, because I’d love for as many kids as possible to experience the creativity of Selick’s tremendous The Nightmare Before Christmas. Yet it would be irresponsible of me to set the bar below age 10 because of the unapologetically creepy nature of the worlds Selick created with collaborator Tim Burton.
Jack Skellington’s Halloween Town is a scary place populated with all of the gruesome creatures that make “bump” sounds in the night. There are pockets of joy (Jack’s trip to Christmas Town is euphoric), but the tone is purposefully dark. If you think your children can handle the guilty scares, make Nightmare a holiday tradition that delivers tricks and treats.
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Spy Kids, to name just a few.