October 03, 2013
(++++) DOGGONE GOOD SCARES
The Nightmare Before Christmas: 20th Anniversary Edition. By Tim Burton. Disney Press. $17.99.
Frankenweenie. Adapted by Elizabeth Rudnick, based on the screenplay by John August. From an original idea by Tim Burton. Disney Press. $16.99.
Your Skeleton Is Showing: Rhymes of Blunder from Six Feet Under. By Kurt Cyrus. Illustrated by Crab Scrambly. Disney/Hyperion. $16.99.
It is hard to believe that it has been 20 years – 20 years! – since Tim Burton brought the world The Nightmare Before Christmas. But the proof is right there on the cover of the new Disney Press edition of the book version of the tale, which Burton wrote and illustrated himself. Right there it says (on a gravestone-shaped sticker, no less) “20 Years.” Wow. Burton’s film was a small masterpiece (some would say not so small), combining more chills than were usually expected at the time in kids’ fare with some thoughtfulness about finding and adhering to one’s role in life – all within the context of a love story between two highly unlikely and, on the face of it, highly unattractive characters. Oh – and it was a musical, too. Burton’s book, which is entirely in verse, simplifies the plot – eliminating quite a few characters, dropping the love story altogether, and having Santa provide a somewhat too-pat moral at the end, undoubtedly to make the book more attractive to the children for whom Disney Press intends it. And shorn of their weirdly apt animated motion, the characters in the book are less scary than those on the screen, which is probably just as well for the targeted audience. The Nightmare Before Christmas is still marvelous, though, and Burton’s twisted poetic sense adds some things to the book that were not in the movie at all: “And though Jack and his friends thought they’d do a good job,/ Their idea of Christmas was still quite macabre.” What a rhyme! Furthermore, Burton’s sense of wonder is as finely tuned as his sense of fright, and some of his illustrations – such as the two-page spread showing Zero the dog guiding the skeletal reindeer pulling Jack on Santa’s sleigh – are alone worth the price of the book. The Nightmare Before Christmas remains a highly unusual dual-holiday treat, one that in the end can really make families think about the meaning of Christmas. And Burton’s book, although simpler and more sanitized than his film, has enough that is unusual about it so that it makes a fine introduction to the movie for kids and parents who, at the conclusion of the story, wish they could have more of it.
Burton himself has scarcely been idle since The Nightmare Before Christmas, having turned out a number of other movies in similar and not-so-similar veins. None has quite matched the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, because even when they have the same amount of heart, they lack the holiday-themed scaffolding on which to, um, hang it (think of The Corpse Bride, for example). But Burton’s trademark scares-and-warmth blend always has a lot going for it, and it flowered (if that is the word) in last year’s film, Frankenweenie. This feature-length stop-motion movie was actually based a much older, much shorter Burton film: way back in 1984, Burton created a half-hour live-action movie of the same title. In both films, a dog takes center stage, even more than Zero does in The Nightmare Before Christmas. In fact, the dog Sparky is at the center of both Frankenweenie movies and of the novel derived from the newer film, which is quite delightfully printed on black paper with white type. Sparky, hit by a car, is revived from the dead by Victor Frankenstein – here a child, not the adult scientist of Mary Shelley’s original book – and of course the electricity that Victor uses to do that explains the dog’s name. The plot arc of the 1984 and 2012 films is essentially the same, including a very funny love relationship between Sparky and another dog – whose fur resembles the famous hairdo in the original 1930s film, The Bride of Frankenstein. The newer Frankenweenie, being three times as long, has more heft to it, and John August did a fine job of expanding Burton’s 1984 screenplay without making it seem overly bloated. One thing that happens in the newer film, and therefore in Elizabeth Rudnick’s novel adapted from it, is that Victor is pushed into sharing his reviving-dead-animals secrets with other kids, who are by no means as sweet and selfless as is Victor himself. “Sparky was still a regular dog – not counting a few stitches and neck bolts,” the book explains. “But that was because he had been brought back out of love. What the others had done was due to jealousy, greed, and selfishness. Which meant the creatures they had made were bound to have some … deformities.” Um, yes. That ellipsis (which is in the book) implies it all. And the result is some highly amusing writing: “The Turtle Monster continued wreaking havoc as Nassor approached with Colossus, his pet hamster.” Everything does eventually work out just fine, at least for Victor and Sparky, and Burton here shows again that he has a very special ability to make the potentially horrific humorous – and vice versa.
Dogs seem to fit naturally into all this ghoulishness: their sweet nature somehow prevents the frightening stuff from getting too far out of hand. And sure enough, a dog is the prime mover of the story told by Kurt Cyrus in Your Skeleton Is Showing. There are actually two dogs here – one provides a very satisfying ending. The one that moves the plot, though, is dead, not unlike Sparky. Well, okay, unlike Sparky – because this dog is dead when the book starts, being a ghostly dog floating along in a graveyard. And the unnamed boy narrator explains that the dog is “lost. Afraid. Alone.” The boy feels sorry for the ghost dog and decides to help him “find his master’s tomb.” And so boy and dog traverse the cemetery, as Cyrus poetically narrates the thoroughly absurd endings that brought the graveyard’s inhabitants to their resting places. There is the boy who picked his nose so much that “it bled, bled, bled.” And the boy ghost flying about and frightening a certain specific sort of bird. Why? “When Mortimer Poe was eleven or so,/ a gaggle of geese took him down./ Only eleven, and hoisted to heaven/ garbed in a goose-feather gown!” There is Mary Lou South, who choked on a mouthful of milk when someone said something funny; Wanda Gripp, an over-enthusiastic hugger whose final hug was given to an anaconda; a garbage man who “was buried in a garbage can”; and so on. The illustrations by Crab Scrambly are funny enough to keep any vestige of fright away, although the deceased gym teacher who “delivers a pep talk from inside his coffin” is certainly on the grotesque side. None of the departed gets many poetic lines, but in fact the shortest remarks are often the funniest, as in the case of Rodney Highstep, which reads in toto: “‘Tripped on his zipper,’ the coroner wrote./ We found the likelihood rather remote.” Boy and dog try to play together as they continue their search, but it doesn’t work out: the boy cannot pick up a ghost stick to throw, and the dog cannot catch a real one. So the search continues, with the boy at one point finding a living dog that helped dig the grave of her really nasty owner, whose passing no one regrets because she does not deserve to be fondly remembered: “Nobody misses you, Mrs. McBride./ You cheated. You lied. You stole./ Even your dog doesn’t care that you died;/ in fact, she helped dig the hole.” This provides the happy-ending foreshadowing, but getting there requires boy and ghost dog to do some further searching – which ends when they do find the ghost pup’s owner, who calls “Up!” and has the satisfaction of watching her dog float upwards to join her. This is not a Tim Burton book, but it has some of the trademark Burton heart at its core, and just as the Burton books transcend the Halloween season at which they are most likely to be trotted out, so does Your Skeleton Is Showing, which deserves to show up throughout the year rather than only on a seasonal basis.