The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Posted by on Jan 2, 2012 in Christmas Treats (Other Than Your Aunt Mildred's Gingersnaps) | 0 comments


Disclaimer: Some young ones may find some of the creatures a tad freaky.

While the Grinch and Rudolph have been holiday standards for decades, the highly eccentric mind of Tim Burton unleashed this uniquely satisfying blend of both and introduced us to the most visually stunning cinematic space of the decade. It is, in fact, the first film fully animated through the stop-motion technique, taking the filmmakers three years to complete and leading to an Oscar nomination for visual effects, only to lose to Jurassic Park.

In a vacant, textured forest, the film introduces us to a series of doors, each with an image of either a heart, turkey, egg, clover, pumpkin, or pine tree, each leading to towns filled with folks working year-round to perfect their respective holiday. We then plunge into Halloweentown, with its dark palette and slanted architecture that point to German Expressionism (notably The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). The town is full of vampires, witches, and a literally two-faced mayor (Glenn Sahdix), who work on innovative ways to scare children each year. But after completing another successful Halloween, the town’s prized prince of scares, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), grows weary of his job’s repetitive nature. With his ghost dog Zero at his side, Jack spends the night wandering in the woods until he stumbles upon the holiday trees. From there, we are taken to the bright, lively, and colorful Christmastown. Jack is so overwhelmed by the gift of giving, he comes back to Halloweentown with the intention of doing Christmas himself. As is the case with most of Burton’s protagonists, he gets it completely wrong.

While Jack divides the duties nightmare2for Christmas, innocent Sally (Catherine O’Hara) tries to warn Jack of the consequences. With the knowledge that Sally is a mere creation of the twisted Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey), he brushes her off and assigns town tricksters Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (also O’Hara), and Barrel (composer Danny Elfman) with the task of kidnapping “Sandy Claws” (Edward Ivory). Eventually, all goes wrong as evil Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) kidnaps Santa and toys begin attacking children.

The short movie (at a meager 75 minutes) is done entirely in a sing-song musical style, with tunes by Elfman, who also provided Jack’s singing voice. Unlike, say, a Disney movie, the songs drive the plot and character development like in opera or Shakespearean soliloquies and rarely rely on rhymes.


Though the film is often attributed to Burton, Henry Selick actually directed it with Burton’s production and story concept. The visuals and camera work are absolutely stunning from the unique lands and characters in the center of the frame to the delicate intricacies tucked into the corners. The capstone image of the film, however, is that of Jack scaling a steep hill that creepily curls, backdropped by a full moon (reminiscent, and almost as lasting, as E.T.). I’m not usually an advocate for sequels of any kind, but these imaginative lands are ones I’d be ecstatic to revisit again and again. Though Burton has yet to slate a sequel, Touchstone Pictures recently released the film in 3D, which is hardly a substitute. The film and its stop-motion style proved so popular that Burton/Selick revisited them again with Corpse Bride and James and the Giant Peach.

If it was Burton’s intention to combine the timeless claymation Christmas specials and How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the filmmakers did so most admirably by capturing the sum of their pure wonder and joy. If other viewers share an inkling of my sheer admiration for this film, it is my prediction that The Nightmare Before Christmas will eventually become a holiday standard unto itself.

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