Even in outsized, animated musicals, the little gestures count. Conceptualist Tim Burton and director Henry Selick understand, actually, that it’s in the most overblown circumstances that small measures matter the most. (I’ll be curious to see if Burton kept this in mind for his adaptation of Sweeney Todd.)
Sally, a reanimated corpse, loves Jack Skellington, the impresario and ghoul extraordinaire of Halloween Town. Though she’s brave enough to repeatedly escape her Dr. Frankenstein-esque creator and go toe-to-toe with a boogeyman, she can’t quite express herself to Jack. Jack, of course, is oblivious both to her feelings for him and vice versa.
Midway through the movie, Jack plans to hijack Christmas, giving Santa Claus a year off while the monsters and ghosts handle the creation of this year’s winter holiday. It will be a hilarious disaster: children will be given toys that attack them; a boy will unwrap a shrunken head in front of his appalled parents; Christmas Eve will be a night of sheer terror for suburbia, providing an influence for a Futurama episode. But that’s in the future. In a scene that serves as calm before the storm, Sally tries to comfort the worrying Jack.
As is her fashion, she does it with food rather than words.
Jack’s pacing in his study, making notes on a chalkboard and trying to quantify Christmas using the scientific method. He loves the warm feeling in his heart that comes from experiencing snow, bright colors, and candy canes for the first time, but he doesn’t understand how it happens. He’s a warrior of the undead, so he’s doing the best he can. As he contemplates, there’s tap at the window. A basket, sent up by pulley, raps on the glass.
Jack opens the window, and looks down to see Sally on the ground, holding the rope. Even from such a high distance, with the vertiginous camera angle and Expressionist set design, we can see the deep-set love in her eyes. True to his fashion, and true to life, Jack sees nothing more than a kind gift from a friend.
The gulf between her gaze and his level of comprehension is enough to make the scene heartbreaking. What makes it magical is what comes afterward. Jack brings in the basket, and uncovers it. The skeletal remains of a fish and a bottle of wine (probably blood) peek out—perfectly horrid to us, perfectly delightful to Jack. It’s worth noting here that Nightmare’s stop-motion animation is crisp but not necessarily fluid—the movie’s frames move at a rhythmic, consistent pace, but the motion in them seems slightly wobbly, like someone’s rolling the celluloid by hand crank. This trope of stop-motion animation—intricate and elaborate production design combined with necessarily herky-jerky mobility; the thoroughly modern jutting up against the thoroughly antiquated—makes me love the form, and the goofy eeriness it engenders is just right for this crackpot fable.
When Jack uncorks the bottle, however, a greenish-yellow vapor emerges that flows more smoothly than anything else in the movie. The vapor rises and immediately turns into a smoky butterfly flapping its wings. Jack’s gesture of surprise turns to one of delight as the butterfly—as good a metaphor for aroma on film as I’ve ever seen—flaps, quivers, and disappears. Jack’s warm smile conveys that he’s beginning to understand that the butterfly pulses as strongly and sensually as Sally’s heart does for him.
He turns toward the window to thank her, more effusively this time, but the uncoiled rope is no longer being held. She’s said what she had to say, without words, and she’s gone.