Should I Watch..? 'The Nightmare Before Christmas'
What's the big deal?
The Nightmare Before Christmas is an animated fantasy musical film released in 1993 conceived and produced by Tim Burton. The film is a stop-motion animation depicting the king of Halloween Town Jack Skellington discovering the Christmas holiday and attempting to understand the appeal of 'Sandy Claws'. The film was directed by Henry Selick and features the vocal talents of Chris Saradon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Ken Page, Glenn Shadix and Ed Ivory. Finding difficulty in getting the project produced, Burton eventually approached Disney who released it through Touchstone Pictures as they thought the film would be too dark and scary for the Disney label. However, the film became an instant classic with critics and audiences falling in love with the picture. Due to several rereleases, the film has now earned more than $75 million in the US alone and is now considered a Christmas classic.
What's it about?
In the ghoulish land of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington is the undisputed Pumpkin King and leads his fellow citizens of ghosts, vampires, zombies and monsters in organising the town's Halloween festival. Although appearing enthusiastic, Jack has grown restless and feels trapped in the same routine. Longing for something different and new, Jack wanders into the forest and discovers secret doorways to other holiday-themed locations including one called Christmas Town.
Initially confused by the whole experience of Christmas, Jack decides that Halloween Town will instead put on a Christmas festival but not everyone else understands the nature of Christmas - including Jack. While Jack attempts to understand exactly what it is that 'Sandy Claws' does on Christmas Eve, he orders that this jolly fat man in red should be brought to Halloween Town to help explain it. But Jack's renewed enthusiasm is somewhat misguided and before long, Christmas itself is in very real danger...
Sally / Shock
Mayor of Halloween Town
Release Date (UK)
25th November, 1994
Animation, Festive, Horror, Musical
Academy Award Nominations
Best Visual Effects
What's to like?
As memorable as it is unconventional, The Nightmare Before Christmas is possibly the most subversive Christmas film since Gremlins. From the enchanting opening scenes in Halloween Town, backed up by one of many typically brilliant Danny Elfman compositions, the film sets its stall out from the start and bewitches you with its unusual tone, atmosphere and animation. Stop-motion is a notoriously laborious and slow process and yet the film feels almost dream-like in its quality. Credit to Selick for his patient direction and the vast army of animators used in bringing the film to life.
Sprung forth from the dark imagination of Tim Burton (you know, the guy who made Batman Returns into an S&M catalogue), the film is genuinely creepy at times but in a PG-sense. The film's scariest character is undoubtedly the odious Oogie Boogie, played with relish by Page, but the film is so awash with off-kilter characters and horror film staples that even Santa comes across as a bitter, twisted old man. All the cast deserve credit but none more so than Sarandon whose excitable Jack is full of fun, humour, charm and a little hint of spookiness.
- There is some dispute over who exactly the film's rights belong. Burton claimed to have conceived of the poem on which the film is based, he wrote most of the screenplay, produced the film and would have directed it if he wasn't already torn between Batman Returns and Ed Wood. The film was even marketed as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, Selick directed it and spent far more time on the film's set and production.
- The film took a team of 120 animators three years to make the film with each second of footage being comprised of twelve separate shots. At the production's peak, twenty sound stages were being used simultaneously. In all, the film features 109'440 frames of animation.
- Elfman claimed that writing the eleven songs that feature in the film was the easiest job he had ever had as a composer, citing similarities between himself and the role of Jack. However, creative differences between himself and Burton led to the director choosing Howard Shore to score his next film Ed Wood.
What's not to like?
As visually arresting as the film is, I wasn't especially sold on the film's aesthetic. I realise that the very nature of the film is to resemble a dream (hence the title) but Jack's elongated limbs and ghoulish supporting cast make this more of a Halloween film than a Christmas one - no doubt Disney's intended audience. Very young children will find the film frightening but more mature viewers will appreciate the film's spooky atmosphere illuminated by the sparkly lights and magic of Christmas snow. It's certainly a unique picture, despite Burton imitating this film with later efforts like Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie.
But such trifling issues can't stop the film from being a dark but enjoyable ride through the best both holidays have to offer. From Elfman's wonderful songs to Burton's twisted vision, the film is a celebration of the power of imagination as well as studios taking a risk with visionary directors. Such is the power of the film that I find the wealth of merchandise that came after it a little disappointing. Obviously, that isn't the film's fault (frankly, it's typical Disney these days) but the continued popularity of Jack Skellington and his town of misfits is testament to the film's place in people's hearts.
Should I watch it?
Bewitching and bewildering, The Nightmare Before Christmas is an enchanting musical that isn't the most festive flick I've ever seen but it sneaks in enough references to just about qualify. It's loaded with catchy songs, amazing visuals and enough spooks to give younger viewers plenty of chills. But let's not pretend that this is a celebration of Christmas - it's a dark, Gothic Halloween picture with essence of Christmas sprinkled on top.
Great For: Goths, merchandising opportunities, Tim Burton
Not So Great For: very young children, Christmas, the easily spooked
What else should I watch?
The debate about what exactly makes a Christmas movie continues to rage (social media has seemingly imploded over Die Hard) but I struggle to include this film in that genre. Maybe I'm old-school but classics like It's A Wonderful Life, the original Miracle On 34th Street and The Bishop's Wife are all heart-warming festive favourites that have genuine charm and joy in them. More modern Christmas films manage to keep certain elements of those earlier classics but chew through them at a faster pace - Home Alone combines slapstick havoc with a parable about the importance of family while Elf sees Will Ferrell cause his own brand of chaos in New York far better than Kevin McCallister ever did.
Disney have had a long tradition of animated films, usually containing one or two songs but nothing that really competes in the stop-motion field. And despite the excess of snow, catchy songs and anthropomorphic creatures, the hugely successful juggernaut that is Frozen doesn't seem to be considered a festive film either although it is very good. If you are looking for stop-motion, however, you do still have other options - Coraline is just as creepy as this film but is based on Neil Gaiman's 2002 novel of the same name while Kubo And The Two Strings won over countless critics and became only the second animated film nominated for Best Visual Effects at the Oscars, seventeen years after The Nightmare Before Christmas became the first.
© 2018 Benjamin Cox