The Nightmare Before Christmas

Some posters just speak for themselves.
Some posters just speak for themselves.

Well, Halloween is upon us, and for those of us who really enjoy the holiday, that means a fun night of parties, costumes, candy, etc. And if you’re like me, you might also try to squeeze in one or two movies that fit in with Halloween. Unlike, say, Christmas, though; there aren’t a wealth of pictures out there that actually focus on the holiday itself, and so usually you just go with a general scary movie to fit the ambience of the night. There are movies about Halloween, though, don’t get me wrong. Obviously, there’s the Halloween series (with a limited number of worthwhile entries), and there’s 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat, and a few others here and there. And, of course, there’s 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, which, despite what the title seems to imply, was confirmed by director Henry Selick to be a Halloween movie, not a Christmas film.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop-motion animated musical conceived by gothic auteur Tim Burton. Stop-motion filmmaker Henry Selick wound up directing, though, due to Burton’s inexperience with stop-motion/other projects he was working on (‘Nightmare was sandwiched between Batman Returns and Ed Wood), meaning Selick had the task of bringing someone else’s vision to screen, and he ought to be commended for how well he did. The film is sort of a Burtonized version of those old animated holiday television specials from the 60s and 70s; it uses his aesthetic and themes while taking inspiration from the likes of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and the stop-motion Rankin-Bass Christmas specials, such as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

The story told is pretty creative: each of the big holidays has their own unique town entirely dedicated to that holiday. Jack Skellington, the head of Halloween Town, begins to tire of his own holiday–desiring something “more”– only to discover Christmas Town, and, so enthused about the cheeriness and brightness and traditions of the holiday, he wishes to not only introduce it to the residents of Halloween Town, but also take it over from Santa Claus, to somewhat disastrous results.

It’s an interesting tale, one that I’m sure you could read a lot of allegorical meaning into; particularly concerning the roles of Halloween and Christmas, and holidays in general, and especially the way that the Christmas season has been extended to encroach on other holidays (the grocery store where I do my shopping already had Christmas stuff out in the beginning of October, which is kind of crazy when you think about it).

But all that really comes after the fact, I think. The specifics of story aren’t really the main point here. The Nightmare Before Christmas, first and foremost, provides a visceral visual and audio experience. The style and production design of this movie is one of the best of any movie ever made. The characters and sets all have an artful gothic feel to them, everything is twisted and warped and very, very stylized. You can tell how much fun the designers and artists had making this world. Halloween Town is a place that really celebrates the aesthetic of the holiday it embodies, there’s spooky houses, and pumpkin patches, and it’s filled with all manner of ghouls, ghosts, monsters, skeletons, and much more. It’s obvious how much love for Halloween is put into the place, and it’s arguably the most “Burtonesque” of Burton’s worlds, more so than his Gotham City or the ghost world in Beetlejuice or his version of London in Sweeny Todd. Christmas Town is given a similar level of thought: it’s bright and colorful, with jolly elves participating in every normal Christmas tradition. Again, it’s very stylized but thoughtful.

It’s really captivating to watch all this on the screen; particularly with the knowledge that all of this is ostensibly practical: people actually constructed this stuff; it wasn’t built in a computer or drawn on a page.

The music in the film is also pretty memorable; longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman wrote the score as well as the songs for the film. Musically it’s all pretty good; it’s dark and atmospheric; and it’s all classically orchestrated, giving it a kind of timeless quality. Some of the songs, “This is Halloween” and “What’s This?” remain popular on their own. “Oogie Boogie’s Song” which has a New Orleans Jazz influence, is also pretty entertaining and is a nice change of pace from the other pieces. I think, though, that Elfman is a better composer than he is a lyricist. Some of the songs are a little wonky word-wise (the line “to a guy from Kentucky, I’m Mr. Unlucky” from the song “Jack’s Lament” always makes me cringe every time I hear it). But overall, there is a pretty good collection of music on display in this film.

Like I said earlier, I think the story is interesting but also comes second to the visuals and the music; and it’s probably also the thing that you can criticize the most about this picture. For example, the movie is only an hour and fifteen minutes, and so a lot of plot points seem rushed or underdeveloped. I don’t think we’re allowed enough time for Jack to go through his various character changes in an organic way, and instead he seemingly switches moods at the drop of a hat. Also the villain, Oogie Boogie, while very fun when he’s on screen, is also just kind of shoe-horned into the back half of the film; and I guess I wanted a little more set up from him.

There are other things of that nature that can be criticized in the story, but, keeping perspective about who the target audience of this film is, I think that, as a visual spectacle with good songs aimed at children, the plot works well enough and does have some aforementioned allegorical significance.

A few other observations on the story
1. We learn in the film that, inside some strange forest, there are doors to various holiday worlds (this is how Jack finds Christmas Town). We see doors for Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter. Presumably, other holiday-towns exist inside these doors; it would be interesting to do some kind of follow-up to this movie where Jack visits these other places.

2. I like that, in learning about Christmas, we see Jack reading A Christmas Carol, which, as the first story to combine spooky ideas (ghosts) with Christmas themes, is something of a predecessor to this film.

3. In general most of the residents of Halloween Town are portrayed as scary-looking but relatively harmless and actually quite nice, if also a little naive.  Oogie Boogie is the only one that’s flat-out evil; but there is also a trio of kids who are tasked with kidnapping Santa Claus, and while I think they are supposed to just be playfully mischievous, they come across as malicious in an unappealing way. The song they sing, “Kidnap the Sandy Claws,” where they talk about hurting Santa, is kind of disturbing lyrically.

4. These same kids kidnap the Easter Bunny by accident; Jack tells them to let him go; given what these kids said they’d do to Sandy Claws, I’m kind of worried.

5. There’s a character in the film named Sally, who is sort of an homage to the Frankenstein monster in that she was created by a character called Dr. Finklestein and her body looks sewn together. As an amusing twist, where as the Frankenstein monster was very abnormal amongst normal people, Sally is the most normal acting resident of Halloween Town.

The Nightmare Before Christmas has become a cult-classic over the years. People remain attracted to its style and its songs, and there’s definitely nothing else like it. And coming out two years before Toy Story, it really shows the potential and imagination that can be achieved with more traditional, pre-CGI* techniques. For as much credit as Burton gets for dreaming up this story, I think Selick deserves an equal amount of praise for realizing Burton’s vision. He’s remained in the stop-motion world over the years, directing James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, amongst other films, and he’s definitely one of the more artful minds in that field.

Lastly, to address his comment about ‘Nightmare being a Halloween film rather than a Christmas film, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the story is told from the perspective of people who live in that holiday and filter everything they know through it. Halloween Town is where we spend most of our time, and it’s the point of view the film really tries to work into. Plus, I think we have enough Christmas films as it is, so let’s let Halloween have another.

So if you’re looking for a good Halloween film to watch today, you might want to check this one out.

*At least I think that’s the case; the end credits due show Pixar worked on this movie in some capacity; so for all I know, there might be some CGI in ‘Nightmare. 

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