REVIEW: The Nightmare Before Christmas [1993]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: PG | Runtime: 76 minutes | Release Date: October 13th, 1993 (USA)
Studio: Buena Vista International
Director(s): Henry Selick
Writer(s): Caroline Thompson / Michael McDowell (adaptation) / Tim Burton (story & characters)

“Curiosity killed the cat, you know”

Born from a poem written in the early 80s while Tim Burton was still working as a Disney animator, The Nightmare Before Christmas was a project the auteur wasn’t going to let lay dormant anymore. After finding success with his signature style in the likes of Beetlejuice and Batman, Burton and Disney were able to agree to a deal that would let another Mouse House alum—Henry Selick—direct it as his first feature film. Bringing in Danny Elfman to write the music and eventually sing the titular role of Jack Skellington shored up a trio of now famously brilliant artistic minds to take audiences into a world of holiday. Each leaves their mark on the work, but in the end we will always associate it to Burton and his singular vision of creepy cute. A labor of love for all involved after three years of animating, the film hasn’t aged one bit in the almost twenty years since its first release.

Inspired by stop-motion films like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and works like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Burton wanted to craft a reverse theme where the outsider discovers the holiday and loves it so much he wants to do it all himself. Instead of the Grinch slowly warming his heart or Scrooge discovering the true meaning of the season, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) is reinvigorated by Christmas upon first glance. The Pumpkin King and ringleader for the ghouls and goblins of Halloween Town, he and his ghost dog Zero stumble through the woods and discover a set of doorways to other fantastical lands. Depressed in the humdrum monotony of his existence within All Hallow’s Eve, our skeletal hero enters Christmas Town singing the wonderful song “What’s This?” as he traipses through the snow and spies on joyful children devoid of creatures under their bed. His fervor is contagious and we can’t wait for him to bring this excitement back home.

But in a land of vampires, werewolves, witches, and mad scientists, joy is derived from fear. Jack describes presents and toys with a love of selfless giving, but they only wonder how to make everything scary. In response, Jack hatches a plan to kidnap ‘Sandy Claws’ to give him a reprieve and take over to prove to Halloween Town what Christmas really means. He enlists his cohorts to create their own brand of toys—not knowing possessed ducks and shrunken heads aren’t quite in the spirit of St. Nick—donning the red and white to fly on his coffin sleigh pulled by three reanimated skeletal reindeer. With pure motives and a desire to bring smiles to the world’s children instead of shrieks, Jack soon discovers the error of his way. Mix holidays together brings trouble, especially when the untrustworthy Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (Catherine O’Hara), and Barrel (Elfman) deliver Santa to the evil Oogie Boogie (Ken Page)—a maniacal and unpredictable monster.

Running a paltry 76-minutes, The Nightmare Before Christmas never wears out its welcome or feels rushed in any way. Expertly paced from the opening lyrics to “This is Halloween”, the film is a breath of fresh air as its creators’ exactly what they want to share. Quirky characters are introduced with the right amount of backstory and subtle jabs at folklore—see the vampires shielding themselves from the sun with umbrellas—are sprinkled in with humor and respect. Besides Burton’s trademark aesthetic to make Oogie Boogie’s Boogieman a biomorphic mass of bugs under a burlap sack, he also nicely re-imagines Frankenstein as Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) with his living doll creation Sally (O’Hara) and designs a revolving emotion, two-headed mayor (Glenn Shadix) that must have inspired the Smilers in “Doctor Who”. Even throwaway extras like a blank-staring behemoth with an axe in his head are amazingly detailed and tonally consistent throughout.

Detail is the name of the game as each character was painstakingly molded and cast in multiples to allow for an expedited film schedule. Jack himself has over four hundred different heads of varying lip positions for a genius computer program to match with spoken syllables. Needing twenty-four unique frames for every second of footage seen, you know the animators and crew were as exacting as possible to prove stop-motion aesthetic could look as good as—or better than—its computer-generated brethren. There is an unequaled charm in seeing fluid camera pans and puppet movements knowing the process behind them. A personal stamp of love is intrinsically seen with each stilted, spider-like footstep of Jack and the jangly unbalanced motions of Sally’s stuffed figure devoid of vertebra. Add in the memorable black light look of Oogie’s lair and the hand-drawn animated ghosts flying about and you have yourself living artwork like no other.

Along with A Day Out with Wallace & Gromit in 1989, Nightmare made stop-motion cool again and helped spawn a litany of modern-day classics like Selick’s own Coraline or the wonderful Fantastic Mr. Fox. Spanning two of the most disparate holidays we have, it somehow finds a way to infuse the best qualities of each. Its central romance between Jack and Sally is heartwarming, the hellishly colorful—visually and audibly due to Page’s unforgettable voice—Oogie adds a sense of danger, and the inclusion of every Halloween critter possible keeps it all fun. Elfman’s music seamlessly progresses the plot while entertaining in Broadway musical theatricality and Burton’s character design is at his peak of creativity. A staple for the fall and winter seasons, no film in its medium may ever best its ability at engaging the whole family. Fifteen years after my first viewing, I discovered new details hidden back then by age and vantage point. It was an experience I wouldn’t mind having every year.

[1] Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) in Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
[3] Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) in Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS in Disney Digital 3-D

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