I write this a few hours after having stumbled out of Disneyland's Nightmare Before Christmas revamp of the Haunted Mansion, while my nerve endings are still a-jangle from the sheer sensory overload of the thing. Not only has the ride itself been given a Tim Burton makeover, but much of the park is now also festooned with Christmas wreaths bearing cartoony skulls, and I even spotted a tiny Oogie-Boogie Man turning the crank inside the glass case of a street vendor's popcorn wagon. The Happiest Place on Earth is abloom with ghoulish yuletide surprises; it's an amazing and surreal experience, made all the more so by the fact that it defies all laws of probability that it exists at all.
You see, 1993's Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (to give the film its complete, clunky title) came and went at the box office without making much of an immediately obvious impression on the public. Disney clearly had no idea what to make of this not-quite-a-kids'-picture and released it with but a murmur of publicity. Critics were likewise bemused; while many admitted the thing was a visual tour de force, nearly all were in agreement that the picture was an odd, failed experiment unsuitable for kids or grown-ups. Nightmare's box-office performance was lackluster at best, and as the film ended its original theatrical run, there was every reason to assume it would become just another obscure, geeky cult fave, a Dark Crystal for the new millennium.
But while Nightmare didn't do Little Mermaid business, it absolutely charmed the striped tights off a certain disaffected demographic (Goth kids, people with their hair dyed crazy colors, Edward Gorey fans and Hot Topic shoppers of every variety) who responded to the picture with a rare display of unadulterated delight. Disney has rarely been accused of undermerchandising a movie, but for the first few years after Nightmare's release, the fans had to content themselves with rusting Burger King promo watches and the like. But eventually their constant and strident demands for Nightmare stuff reached the Mickey Mouse ears of the boys at Disney HQ, who must have been astonished to discover that they could slap a Jack Skellington face on jars of expired mayonnaise and it would sell out by week's end. No matter how much Nightmare product Disney dreamed up, the fans never seemed to get enough, and soon the nation was awash in Nightmare shirts and buttons and cookie jars and every goddamn thing you could ever imagine and a lot of stuff you probably couldn't. As the years have passed, wholesome suburban folk with jobs and kids noticed all this Nightmare swag cluttering up the malls, went back to check the picture out for themselves and found that it was actually pretty amazingly neat.
And so this lost classic is suddenly no longer lost—in fact, it's teetering on the brink of overexposure. While I rank it among my top five films of all time (I ain't ashamed to say it), there's still something queasy-making about seeing this quirky little masterpiece being given the Grinch treatment, transformed into a ready-made seasonal favorite for young and old alike, a theme-park ride, a brand name. Disney can blast away with their saturation-bombing publicity program all they like, but while such campaigns have made modern Disney swill like The Lion King even more insufferable, they haven't made us stop loving such classics as Snow White or Pinocchio, and they won't do a thing to make Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas any less of a funky little miracle than it is.
The fine folks at LA's El Capitan Theatre screen Nightmare this week, along with a couple of rare, early Tim Burton shorts. Participants in the film will also be on hand, along with original props, sets and other goodies. There are other, more local scarifying film events going on this Halloween, but Nightmare is more than worth the trek up to LA. Having survived Disney's indifference as well as Disney's publicity overkill with its basic wonderfulness intact, Nightmare is a seasonal treat that will never go stale.
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TIM BURTON'S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS SCREENS AT EL CAPITAN THEATRE, 6838 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD, (800) DISNEY6. FRI.-THURS., OCT. 31. CALL FOR SHOW TIMES; FILMMAKER PANEL, FRI., 7 P.M. $6-$8.