“‘Please your honors,’ said he, ‘I’m able, by means of a secret charm, to draw all creatures living beneath the sun that creep, or swim, or fly, or run, after me so as you never saw! And I chiefly use my charm on creatures that do people harm: the mole, and toad, and newt, and viper; And people call me the Pied Piper.’” -An introduction to a character that needs no introduction
For 300 years, a stained glass window depicting a colorfully dressed piper stood in the church of the German town of Hamelin. Although the window was destroyed in 1660, records detail the message enshrined upon it:
In the year of 1284, on the day of Saints John and Paul on June 26, by a piper, clothed in many kinds of colors, 130 born in Hamlin were seduced and lost at the place of execution near the koppen.
Another entry in Hamelin’s town records dating from 1384 follows up with a grim assessment:
It has been 100 years since our children left.
It’s said that every folk story and fairy tale has a grain of truth to them…which can make the tale in question even more disturbing when there are written accounts to back it up. Such is the case with The Pied Piper of Hamelin. We know something terrible right out of a fantasy story did indeed happen, but the details and reasoning behind it are lost to time. From there the human imagination takes over and fills in the spaces with dark suppositions. What of this enigmatic Piper who lured so many victims to an unknown fate? Is he Death personified? One of the fae? A remnant of the mysterious dancing plague that struck 14th century Europe? Was he a colorful recruiter of German colonizers looking to settle further east? A metaphor for the Children’s Crusade, where thousands of children were rounded up to take the Holy Land only to never return? Or, perhaps, a dark manifestation of the fear of child predators?
Curiously, neither the window nor documents make any mention of a rat plague that so often accompanies retellings of the Pied Piper story. That aspect didn’t appear until the 16th century. The wonder and terror surrounding the Piper’s doings have inspired one interpretation after another. Can Faerie Tale Theatre recapture the magic, or is it full of sour notes?
(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.)
“Twas a long time ago,
Longer now than it seems
In a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams
For the story that you are about to be told
Took place in the holiday worlds of old.
Now you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from.
If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you’d begun…”
– Opening narration
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a movie that I’ve always had a personal connection to. It was released when I was just a child, but I can still remember seeing ads and toys for it in certain places and being oddly fascinated by it, despite the fact that it had ghosts and skeletons and monsters and other such things that would usually scare the bejeezus out of me at that age. I can still remember my first time ever seeing the movie – not in theaters, but at my cousin’s third birthday party. He was a year younger than me, and on his birthday that year, all us kids gathered in the basement of his house and watched this movie in the dark. Whether there were any adults there to supervise us I can’t say, but I can say that I was enraptured by every second of it. I can vaguely remember some of the other children being a little afraid, but I wasn’t (well, maybe for two parts, but those were rather quick moments that didn’t traumatize me as much as you might think). Up until then I had never seen anything like The Nightmare Before Christmas; it was dark but not gruesome, lighthearted without being sappy, humorous, heartwarming, and the visuals and the music stayed in my head long afterwards.
I remember really enjoying it, but a long time passed between that one viewing and the next time I would see it again. For whatever reason, maybe they thought I would be too scared by it, my parents never bought the movie for me. It wasn’t until I was about thirteen or fourteen that I caught it on HBO one day, and all those memories of watching it through the eyes of a child came flooding back. I became obsessed with The Nightmare Before Christmas big time, watching it and listening to the soundtrack even when it wasn’t Halloween or Christmas, learning all I could about the movie via books and dvd bonus features, and yes, making fanart of the characters. It was my gateway to the dark and quirky world of Tim Burton, and seeing as how I was also going through an angry, rebellious, anti-Rankin-Bass phase as a teenager, I embraced this movie with open arms while my family looked on with something that wasn’t quite disgust and wasn’t quite confusion.
And for the record, this was BEFORE this chain got their sticky fingerless gloves all over it and slapped the characters’ faces on everything they could sell, freakin’ posers.
So you may be wondering what the story behind this odd little film is. Well, back in the 80’s Tim Burton worked for Disney as an animator. Yes, the Man of Merry Macabre once worked for the bright and squeaky-clean House of Mouse. I still have a hard time believing it (What Alice in Wonderland movie? Disney only made one Wonderland film and it was animated, silly!) Burton’s time at Disney wasn’t a happy one as most of his ideas were shot down for being too dark and different and he wasn’t too keen on drawing only cutesy animals for a living.
One day, while walking down a street, he came across a window display in a store having its Halloween decorations switched out with Christmas ones and inspiration struck. He wrote a poem based on the classic holiday tome “The Night Before Christmas” showing what happened when two holidays collided. Initially he pitched it as a half-hour stop-motion special, ironically in the style of Rankin-Bass, and he wanted it to be narrated by his idol, Vincent Price. Disney, however, wasn’t interested, and Burton would eventually leave the studio. It wasn’t until after he achieved popularity with “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” that Disney approached him with the idea of turning The Nightmare Before Christmas into a movie. Burton was all for it, but couldn’t direct it himself due to his commitment to filming “Batman Returns”. Instead, he got stop-motion artist Henry Selick to direct it.
Now I’d like to clarify something right away – this is a Tim Burton movie through and through; his name and signature style may be all over this film (heck, the title of the film is preceded by Burton’s name just to remind you whose brainchild it was), but I cannot give enough credit to Henry Selick. The man is a genius of stop-motion; his name is up there with Ray Harryhausen and Nick Park as the best in the business. People often assume that because it’s a Burton film with his name in the title that Tim Burton directed it, but it’s not. Selick did an amazing job with this movie and I’m happy to say it’s led to a very fruitful career for him, directing other stop-motion greats such as James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. Even though there have been innovations in animation since then, this film looks just as great today as it did twenty years ago. So while the story and characters are pure Tim Burton, this movie is just as much Henry Selick’s as it is Tim’s. You’ll see why when I finally get around to reviewing it…
…which is now.
We open in the middle of a forest, where, in a clearing, there is a circle of trees, each one with a door representing a different holiday – an egg for Easter, a heart for Valentine’s Day, a clover for St. Patrick’s Day, a Christmas tree for Christmas, a turkey for Thanksgiving, a jack-o-lantern for Halloween, and one which for years I was unsure was either a firecracker for 4th of July or a dreidel for Hanukkah. We can only imagine how this film would have turned out if it was “The Nightmare Before Hanukkah” instead of Christmas.
Anyway, as the opening narration wraps up, we enter the jack-o-lantern door and we get our first musical number “This is Halloween.”
Oh, and did I forget to mention that longtime Tim Burton collaborator and former Oingo Boingo frontman Danny Elfman did the music for this movie? How foolish of me. How could it have possibly slipped my mind when this music is OHMYGOSHUNBELIVABLYAWESOMEANDBEAUTIFULANDBLAAAAAAGHHHH –
Uh, can I pay you to pretend that didn’t just happen?