By the time 1993 rolled around, Tim Burton already had projects like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands under his belt, and had firmly established himself as an auteur director of quirky, weird films. It was probably that year’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – a movie that Burton produced and didn’t even direct – that firmly established him as being a filmmaker with a cult of personality following, and has become his most enduring work, however. A stop-motion animated feature directed by Henry Selick (with strong creative input from Burton) and produced by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures, The Nightmare Before Christmas mixed up Halloween and Christmas imagery in iconic ways (Mickey Mouse has his fingers in all the holiday pies), it captured the imaginations of an entire generation, and it can still be seen advertised all over the backpacks and binders of eyeliner wearing teenagers to this day.
That same year another Halloween-themed family film came out of another wing of the Disney conglomerate called Hocus Pocus. But, despite that fact that it starred a trio of actresses who were fairly big names at the time, it hasn’t enjoyed nearly as much attention over the years as Nightmare. And, unless you happen to be a devotee of the movie Newsies (which I know some of you are), chances are you’ve never heard of its director, Kenny Ortega. Sure, Hocus Pocus still gets played on the Disney channel around Halloween every year, as it’s probably cheap programming for the company, but you’re not likely to see any 16-year-old girls with Hocus Pocus patches sewed on their backpacks. Is this movie really forgettable enough to just be late night cable fare, or did it suffer some from getting released the same year as a Halloween movie as beloved as Nightmare?
What do they have in common?
They’re both family films that, nonetheless, contain spooky, horror-related elements; probably because they’re both set during Halloween and feature otherworldly creatures as characters. Selick’s Nightmare Before Christmas most prominently features a strange skeleton guy named Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), who is currently the King of Halloween but really wants to get involved with Christmas. Hocus Pocus focuses on a trio of evil witches (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimi, and Sarah Jessica Parker) who want to kill the children of Salem, Massachusetts and steal their youth.
Why is The Nightmare Before Christmas overrated?
The world of Halloween Town (including its inhabitants) that Selick and Burton created for Nightmare is always stunning to look at. Not only is Selick probably the most skilled master of stop-motion animation working in the medium today, lending his characters nuanced, expressive body language, but also the design work done on all of these environments is intricate, expansive, and mind-bendingly creative, which means the movie always gives you something interesting to look at.
But it’s all a little too creative, a little too abstract. There aren’t enough human elements in this story to latch on to. The only thing Jack Skellington and his travails have to offer an adult audience are archetypical lessons that feel like they would be at home in an old fable, and your lack of emotional involvement eventually leads to the movie becoming a swirling storm of disorienting visuals – which could work well for very small children, the same way hanging a mobile above a crib works for infants, but it doesn’t do much for anyone else. Which begs the question of what it is about this movie that disenfranchised teenagers relate so closely to. Is it merely an attraction to Burton’s aesthetic?
The degree to which black jeans wearing teens and twentysomethings are attached to this movie is especially surprising considering it can be a slow moving bore due to its status as a musical. Danny Elfman may be a little one note when it comes to big name film score composers, but he’s come up with some legendary themes, and he knocked the featured track, “What’s This?,” out of the park in this movie, but all the other songs that appear sound like generic, forgettable examples of a person whose forte isn’t stage music trying to write a musical. And the songs here are constant. Every couple minutes the narrative comes to a grinding halt so all of the characters can sing a song about what it is they’re doing, and, consequently, a story that could have made for a fun animated short gets stretched out to an excruciating feature length. Really, even with the songs this film is still only 76 minutes long, but I still have a hard time making it to the end every time I try to revisit it. 76 minutes should fly by in a breeze, not feel like a tedious chore you have to slog through every Halloween.
Why is Hocus Pocus underpraised?
Here we have another kid-friendly Halloween movie that contains musical numbers, but not so many that they slow down the pacing. Actually, the witch trio’s spirited rendition of “I Put a Spell On You” even works to move the plot along, as it entrances the town’s adults and gets them out of the way of their machinations. And the song that Parker sings to lure the children back to their house for murdering, it moves the plot along, is kind of a catchy ballad, and manages to be pretty creepy as well. Plus, it offers up a really great opportunity to peak at the ridiculous cleavage that Parker is sporting throughout the film.
Which brings us to the next thing that sets Hocus Pocus apart from most of the forgettable family friendly Halloween features out there: it truly is a family film, because it has a little something for every member of the family to enjoy. In Parker and Vinessa Shaw there are pretty ladies to keep dad’s attention, three of mom’s favorite actresses make up the witch trio, and the protagonists are a brother/sister duo who give kids of every age something to relate to. Teenagers can get behind Max’s (Omri Katz) struggle to find romance while being the new guy in town, and younger kids can enjoy watching Dani’s (Thora Birch) bonding with a talking cat (Sean Murray).
And in addition to each of the kids exploring new relationships, they also get thrust into a good amount of harrowing-but-not-too-frightening horror action as well. The witch trio bring the comedy, but they also work as a scary threat. Midler, Najimi, and Parker have great chemistry together, and the way they operate like a single, many-limbed organism is kind of unsettling. Plus, you’ve got zombie attacks, people being burned alive, and, heck, the movie pretty much opens with a little girl getting killed. This may be a Disney movie through and through, but it always remembers to get in the spirit of the Holiday by throwing in some spookiness and scares.
Evening the odds.
As a kid who grew up watching Disney’s Halloween Treat every year, I’ve always been of the opinion that there should be more kid friendly, Halloween-themed films out there. Halloween is all about horror movies – which makes perfect sense – but what with the biggest part of the holiday being centered on trick-or-treating, a children’s activity, shouldn’t we have more entertainment surrounding it that isn’t R-rated and full of boobs and gore too? Props to the Disney company, because other than It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, they’re the only ones who have produced any. The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m glad it exists so kids can have something to watch every Halloween. It’s just a shame it had to come out the same year as one of the only other quality, kid-friendly Halloween movies that exists, Hocus Pocus.