It’s Christmas, lets be glad. I love Christmas, love it more than a man in his mid-twenties with no real loved ones should. Cookies being baked, co-workers forced to disguise their innate unhappiness, Dean Martin and Perry Como on the radio, and gaudy lights in every window, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. It is also the time of year where I allow myself to rewatch movies. As such Christmas is defined by my favourite films and there are certain films I have to watch EVERY year, and bizarrely they’re mostly scored by Danny Elfman. So here’s a festive Blog on how Danny Elfman owns my Christmas.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

It is funny how your perceptions of things change with age. I used to think the message of THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS was about taking ownership of your own role. Realising your strengths and weaknesses and having them clarified and forged by adversity. Watching it in 2010 I’m struck by the fact that the film is essentially an allegory for a corporate takeover. Jack Skellington represents a corporate chairman, attempting to challenge himself with the acquisition of a company he doesn’t quite understand and working with a workforce incapable of moving beyond their old routines. Despite his best interests Jack does not understand the new business he has taken onboard and attempts to use the tried and trued methods to create a success. However his methods are not a best fit for this new enterprise and things end up going awry. The cannon fire which shoots Jack down from the heavens represents auditors, or something.

 



I love THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s got great songs, looks gorgeous and is appropriately Christmassy. But it doesn’t really hang well together. The problem is that Jack Skellington is an odd sort of protagonist. One of the main bones of contentions with this film is who has authorial control. Tim Burton has his name before the title and is generally regarded as the creative director of the film, but it is Henry Selick who has the official title of director and Jack Skellington as a character suggests the films owes far more to him than Burton. The heroes of Tim Burton’s films are often outsiders, oddballs, people with a unique insight who are shunned by those around them as such most Burton films feel almost autobiographical. Jack Skellington doesn’t feel like a Burton avatar because he’s essentially misguided, but allows his overriding confidence to propel the story along. Where most Burton characters are shunned by society, Jack Skellington has an army of followers waiting on his words. Where most Burton characters are at odds with the world, unable to bend to societal norms, Jack Skellington is willing to compromise his vision. He defines his goals in a way that his associates will understand rather than remaining taciturn and unknowable.

 

What this means from a narrative standpoint is that the audience knows, almost from the very first scene, that Jack’s endeavour is foolish and possibly dangerous. We can see how his best intentions are undermined by a failure to comprehend the nature of the holiday he is taking over and as such we spend seventy minutes in the company of a man who is traveling down a foolish path and buoyed by his own arrogance. The only thing that makes the character not unravel is an undercurrent of idealism and great voice acting by Chris Sarandon (Jack’s talking voice) and Danny Elfman (Jack’s singing voice). Sarandon brings a general kindness to Jack whilst Elfman finds a wonderful mixture between sweetness and darkness as Jack’s singing voice. Elfman and Selick are fantastic collaborators in this, Selick’s lyrical directorial style perfectly counterbalanced by Elfman’s fairy story score. In particular scenes like Jack walking down an unfurling hill during one of his first numbers are a really great synergy of music and visuals.

Scrooged

 

I was born in 1985 and as such all of the picks on this list are stuff that I grew up with. As such my first real interaction with a Christmas Carol weren’t the books or the old Alistair Sim adaptation but THE MUPPET CHIRSTMAS CAROL and this modern adaptation. SCROOGED represents one of those weird formative experiences where you realize that the things you like and find ‘iconic’ are actually niche. For example because my mother was massively into SIOUXSIE AND THE BANSHEES and DEAD KENNEDYS I grew up thinking that they were massively popular and had a global following. A similar thing happened with SCROOGED. I saw it first when I was about ten or eleven and kind of fell in love with the movie. I then made a habit of trying to watch it each year finally managing to record a copy off TV in about 1998. That battered and worn VHS, complete with advert breaks every ten minutes, would get trotted out every Christmas and would be an integral part of the Spike Marshall Christmas Experience. To me SCROOGED was amazing and iconic and a perfect diffusion of Christmas to the rest of the world it was the weird comedy that Richard Donner made in-between LETHAL WEAPONS.

 



SCROOGED is that rare thing, a movie headlined by Bill Murray. Now Bill Murray has himself an impressive filmography, but he was generally part of an ensemble or a memorable bit part. A brief perusal of his filmography suggests he was the headline star in four movies, one of which (THE RAZOR’S EDGE) I’ve never heard of. You can bump the list to six if you include both GARFIELD movies, but I prefer to imagine Murray’s later career as an indie film fueled renaissance and GARFIELD ruins my fantasy. Part of the reason that Murray is so often a smaller part of a greater whole is that he works best when he’s bumping off people, he’s fantastic in small doses or when he’s reined in by others and as such Murray in a starring role can often overwhelm proceedings. What SCROOGED does, by being essentially a collection of vignettes, is give Murray a consistent set of big personalities to play against. With recurring foils in John Glover and Bobcat Goldthwaite as his rival and vengeance seeking ex-employee respectively Murray is able to maintain the terse style of comedy which makes him such a vital part of an ensemble. His interactions with David Johansen and Carol Kane as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future allow Murray to leave the spotlight, the broader stylings of Johansen and Kane creating a suitable breather for Murray.

 

But Murray is the star of the film and one of the interesting aspects of the film is that Murray plays Frank Cross with a consistent streak of kindness. He’s not as cold or as heartless as other Scrooges, he’s just been embittered but the warmth underneath is always palpable even when Murray is trying desperately to play mean. Tonally the film is a bit of a mess, with jokes coming thick and fast but never having any real consistency, but as a series of vignettes it works perfectly and the finale which has Murray pretty much breaking character to directly address the audience is something which shouldn’t work, but works on me EVERYTIME.


Batman Returns

 

The one thing that links the first three films on my list is a score by Danny Elfman. Whilst his score is somewhat compromised in SCROOGED it’s still easy to identify it’s innocuous ‘la la las’ as Elfman’s work. BATMAN RETURNS probably boasts one of my favourite Elfman scores. His main Batman theme was pretty much drilled into my mind as a boy. In fact if you played that music to me today my Pavlovian conditioning would require me to go and find a clown and throw him off the highest place I could find. His work on BATMAN RETURNS largely eschews the triumphant Batman theme, but then again BATMAN RETURNS largely eschews its titular character, and that is kind of why I love it. I really like Burton’s original BATMAN movie, and adore BATMAN RETURNS. I however never had anytime for Michael Schumacher’s Batman films and it wasn’t because of the Day-Glo sets or Bat Credit-Cards (I LOVE that kind of stuff) it was because they were essentially villain movies peopled by miscast actors doing bad Jack Nicholson impressions.

 



BATMAN RETURNS is superior to these films simply because the villains it chooses to focus on are eccentric and weird and goofy in their own unique ways. DeVito’s Penguin is perhaps the broadest of the trio of villains and perhaps owes the most to Nicholson’s Joker but he finds an undercurrent of dark sarcasm and animal ferocity which separates him from the goofy lampooning of Schumacher’s villains. Christopher Walken as the main villain of the piece, the walking expressionist homage that is Max Shreck, is fabulously entertaining but also his own man whilst Michelle Pfeiffer does perhaps her best work in the film as both Catwoman and the vampy Selina Kyle. The only time you really get a clash of performances is when Michael Keaton (as Bruce Wayne) and Walken share screen time. Thankfully they share about three scenes and their constant effort to out affect each other is amusing rather than irritating. Whereas Burton’s first Batman film feels like a compromise between Burton and the studio, RETURNS feels like Burton let off the leash. It’s a dichotomy that meant that for the Christmas of 1992 EVERY kid I knew got plastic, rocket equipped, Penguins for Christmas because when faced with BATMAN RETURNS as a marketable property what else could they do.

 

Burton being allowed off the leash means that we get a superhero film that is kind of unique. There is an odd energy to the movie, a brooding, satirical style which focuses more on the villains than the heroes. The stars of the film are essentially The Penguin and Catwoman and they’ve both got motivations which are almost teenage. Catwoman is the product of a lifetime of repression being allowed out whilst The Penguin seeks to reclaim the life that was stolen from him. As such there’s a really prevalent sexual dynamic to the film, it also makes the film feel like a weird sort of spiritual successor to Heathers where the sullen teenage outcasts rage against the popular kids until Batman crashes their party. Keaton is given little to do, but makes the most of his few scenes. But what makes BATMAN RETURNS feel really unique is how talky and weird and jokey it is. Burton seems to have realized the natural issues of the Batsuit in terms of choreography and the major action set pieces are broken down into small, quick, moments. What this means is that we have a two hour long action movie with three major action scenes none of which last more than five minutes. In any other directors hands this would be prosaic, but the cast and a very funny script mean that it’s still my favorite of the Batman films.