Part Three of Sasha’s Tim Burton Takes Toronto follows the last leg of her Burton Blitz — the “animation detour” that is James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare before Christmas.
From 7 p.m. on Friday, November 26 to some ungodly hour on the morning of Sunday, November 28th, Torontonians were invited to TIFF Bell Lightbox to screen the entirety of Tim Burton’s filmography (excluding the two shorts Frankenweenie and Vincent). This was in celebration of the Burton exhibit coming to town, which was first curated by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For some, myself included, the prospect of sitting through sixteen feature films by Burton was intriguing — a Burton Blitz of sorts. Others might call it “Hell on Earth”.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
James Henry Trotter lives with his two horrible aunts, Spiker and Sponge, after being orphaned three years earlier on a shopping trip, where his mother and father were eaten by a rhinoceros. Abused and underfed, James completes back-breaking chores and sleeps on the bare floorboards of his aunt’s small, desolate house — until something magical happens.
Just a thought – The childhood of James Henry Trotter is largely reminiscent of the protagonist’s of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of novels. Both boys live with their aunts after being orphaned by the tragic deaths of their parents. Their aunts are abusive and neglectful, forcing both boys to live under terrible conditions. Then James and Harry are whisked away by an eccentric man with magical powers to a world that is full of acceptance and friendship. Henry Trotter, Harry Potter. Maybe J.K. Rowling read James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl once or twice in her lifetime? But we’re not talking about Harry Potter, we’re talking James and the Giant Peach, a film I watched frequently as a child.
It’s my firm belief that Henry Selick doesn’t get the credit he so rightly deserves. Without the presence of stop-animation in his filmography, Tim Burton wouldn’t be as well known for his artistic inclinations (and, frankly, he wouldn’t be known at all by those
angst-ridden teenagers who cling to The Nightmare Before Christmas like it’s the Holy Grail). It’s my duty, therefore, to mention that Tim Burton did not write or direct James and the Giant Peach. He and his uber-producer Denise Di Novi served as producers on the film. Instead, James and the Giant Peach was directed by Henry Selick, stop-motion animator extraordinaire.
The film takes on the “storybook” structure, that was so effortlessly successful in Edward Scissorhands, and brings you into the childhood of James Henry Trotter. After watching the lonely and neglected James suffer, it is hard not to feel terrible for the young boy. And when you think your heart can’t take more punishment, James breaks out into a song familiar to “Castle on a Cloud” from the musical Les Miserables. If you are not immediately and thoroughly endeared by James at that precise moment, I question the presence of your soul. It would be very difficult to think of anything except calling (the British-equivalent of) child services on Aunt Spiker and Aunt Sponge.
Under Tim Burton’s watchful eye, the direction of Henry Selick and the score of Randy Newman — not Danny Elfman — are perfectly suited for slightly macabre, yet whimsical children’s stories and fairytales. James and the Giant Peach is also a musical. Wait, it’s an animated musical adaptation of a children’s story, even. This is how you get things done, Disney. You can’t blame the failure of The Princess and the Frog on a genre that is obviously adored by children and adults alike. (James and the Giant Peach was easily the most enjoyable two hours I spent during the Burton Blitz at TIFF Bell Lightbox.) You just need a well-conceived story, and a few good men and women behind the wheel. Disney — If you go through on your threat of removing fairytale musicals from your filmscape, then what are you for?
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Speaking of Henry Selick-directed stop-motion musicals, the last film I watched during the Burton Blitz was The Nightmare Before Christmas. Jack Skellington, also known as The Pumpkin King, heads up a town of monsters, vampires and ghouls — “Halloween Town” — in the coordination of Halloween year after year. Unfortunately for Jack, he has grown tired of the same routine, and he becomes intrigued by the concept of Christmas after accidentally opening a portal to “Christmas Town”.
It is somewhat difficult to write about The Nightmare Before Christmas with any semblance of impartiality or professionalism. My mother — the most-influential Tim Burton admirer in my life — completely adores this film, and that adoration has (apparently) rubbed off on me during my childhood. I can’t remember a Christmas season passing without this movie on constant repeat within my household. It also doesn’t help that I probably own hundreds of dollars of Nightmare merchandise, accumulated over years of maternally-supervised devotion to this particular musical.
Another reason I can’t write frankly about The Nightmare Before Christmas during the Burton Blitz? I was exhausted. After Oogie Boogie sang his menacing song to “Sant-y Clause”, I closed my eyes for what I thought was a second. When I opened them, Christmas was — spoiler warning — saved and “Halloweentown” was back to their usual, terrible antics. It was around 11 a.m. by then and I had been watching Tim Burton movies for sixteen hours straight. So, it’s not a surprise that I fell asleep. To be frank, after “Oogie Boogie’s Song”, the musical numbers in The Nightmare Before Christmas aren’t as good as those that came before (with the possible exception of “Poor Jack”).
From Pee-wee’s Big Adventure to The Nightmare Before Christmas, I had an amazing and memorable time at TIFF Bell Lightbox for the Burton Blitz. I wish I had the opportunity to sleep most of the day on Friday, so, that I could have stayed at the Blitz for longer. I regret not seeing Big Fish on the big screen. That would have been the cherry on top of a top-notch weekend in Toronto.
Want to read more from Sasha?
Well, she’s got a website called The Final Girl Project and has a Twitter account to which she is addicted. Also, she and Jeff are organizing a special director-focused series that will be published on Dork Shelf in the near future.