Review: Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas”
Directed by: Henry Selick
Produced by: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Written by: Caroline Thompson, Michael McDowell (screenplay); Tim Burton (story)
Cinematography by: Pete Kozachik
Editing by: Stan Webb
Music by: Danny Elfman
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page
Aren’t you glad that emo culture is on its way out? (Or is that fad already dead? I can’t really tell. Not in school any longer. I hope it is.) I remember this one emo kid in my high school, a couple grades below me, who went by the name of “Jack.” I put that in quotations because, as it turns out, his name wasn’t actually “Jack.” I honestly don’t remember what his name was, but I do remember how stupid I felt once I learned that his name actually wasn’t “Jack,” as I had come to believe, and that he had chosen this false name based on the lead character from The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Now, I wasn’t actually well acquainted with “Jack,” and, from what I could tell, he was an all around nice guy who otherwise didn’t deserve my quiet scorn, but for some reason, the adoption of the name and, more than anything, the reasons behind it really irked me, especially since mostly everyone obliged him, including the faculty. I realized at that moment that emo kids were really taking popular, sometimes great things and assimilating them as their own “thing” — and getting away with it. 8-bit Nintendo was probably one of the biggest heartaches, and I know even my mom wasn’t too pleased with the emo-fication of Hello Kitty, either, especially since she had grown up with the Sanrio characters before they had even been imported to the U.S. Perhaps the biggest offense, however, was this annoying adoption of this particular film as their own. If you were a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it quickly became suspect that you were somehow at least a closet emo.
Which sucks, because I was totally a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas before emo was even a thing! It was my family’s first DVD when DVD was still brand new, back when discs had generic menus, non-anamorphic widescreen, and multiple languages counted as a “special feature”! Thank God the emo trend is over. Or dead. (Again, I’m not entirely certain. I’m sure there are some pocket holdouts and some new permutations that I’m now no longer really exposed to now that I’m out in the real world.) Anyway, let’s not acknowledge those people anymore. Let’s talk about the movie. Afterall, there’s a lot to love about The Nightmare Before Christmas that doesn’t require you to be part of some subculture.
The film has a fun and imaginative storyline. If you’ve somehow managed to not see the film or have understandably avoided it due to its subculture association, here’s a rough synopsis for you: Jack Skellington is the patron of Halloween and the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town — a role that has him constantly coming up with new ideas on how to make the next year’s celebrations even more frightful than the last. The yearly preparations have taken their toll on Jack, however, and he now longs for something new and exciting from his life.
Of course, it’s not long before his dreams are answered when he discovers a portal to a place called Christmas Town. Enamored with its cheerful atmosphere and, most of all, the head honcho of this strange new place, “Sandy Claws,” Jack is inspired and sets about studying his new discovery. After much deliberation, he decides to let Santa take the year off and put his own personal spin on Christmas, and, hiring a gang of trick-or-treaters, inadvertently delivers him into the hands of the truly evil Oogie Boogie.
Jack also doesn’t quite understand that Halloween and Christmas, though both important, have very different roles for people here in the our world, and it’s not long before his brand of Christmas celebration turns into an unintentional nightmare for everyone when the gifts Jack delivers terrify rather than bring joy to the world. Naturally, Jack must now save Santa and Christmas, but (SPOILERS) in a refreshing twist, the film makes no apologies for its hero attempting to branch out into new experiences, rewarding him instead with a new perspective and appreciation for his role as the patron of Halloween.
Though the story is quite fun, the film wouldn’t be nearly as wonderful without the insidiously catchy music. These songs will continue to haunt your mind throughout the year, regardless of whether or not it’s nearing Halloween or Christmas. “This is Halloween,” “What’s This?,” and “Jack’s Lament” rival some of Disney’s more well known songs from their animated canon in both quality and composition. The film seriously has possibly one of the greatest soundtracks of any animated musical ever, and this is largely due to Danny Elfman’s dual role as both composer and singing voice for the film’s eccentric hero, Jack Skellington. Much of Jack’s dialogue takes place through song, to the point where I often wonder if Chris Sarandon, who nonetheless turns in a fine performance, was even necessary for the speaking parts. Elfman’s voice is rich, emotive, and oddly graceful, creating a character who exudes charm, enthusiasm, and theatricality with every word and movement, but one who also, despite being dead, longs for more out of his life than being the Pumpkin King every year.
The stop motion animation is also probably a close second in terms of making this film as brilliant as it is. Though filmmakers have undoubtedly improved the technology used in films like these, like with ParaNorman and its use of 3D printers, everything here still feels alive and is breathtaking to look at. The figures and their environments are hand-sculpted, with each little detail giving eerie life to these freakish but well-meaning characters and their scary little world they live in. Each model is unique and lovingly made, and this care for their craftsmanship really comes out in the animators’ work. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a short film, but it’s very easy to start playing favorites with some of the supporting characters who probably don’t even do much more than just appear in the background in a few scenes.
Aside from maybe the slightly under-developed love story between Jack and the poor living ragdoll, Sally (the implications of a history of exchanged glances is maybe a bit too subtle and one-sided) and a villain who is more camp than creepy, this is truly one of those holiday classics that you’ll find yourself eager to watch year after year when the holiday season comes around — and probably even any other time, too. The pacing is brisk, the story is inspired, with a hero who is immensely appealing, and the music is certainly some of the finest you’ll hear from any modern musical. Trust me when I say you don’t have to be a social outcast or belong to some fad subculture to appreciate the amount of work and skill that went into the making of this spectacular film.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4.5 / 5