The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)

Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993)

There was a time when I had no idea that The Nightmare Before Christmas was a Disney property.  When I first saw it around Halloween of 1993 during its original theatrical run, it was credited to Touchstone Pictures, which unknown to me at the time, was a spin-off of Disney.  Disney used Touchstone to market to older audiences and when the executives got a look at how creepy the imagery of Nightmare was they decided it was best to distance it from the Disney brand.  That’s not to say they expected failure or anything, on the contrary, Disney hoped to cash in on the Henry Selick directed picture due to its unique animation style.  That was another thing I wouldn’t become aware of for years.  The picture, often marketed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, was directed by Mr. Selick.  Burton crafted the story and worked on the character designs, script, and screenplay but had little involvement in the actual production.  This was due to him being a pretty hot commodity at the time and a certain Batman picture demanded a lot of his time.  Also, he had little desire in overseeing the tedious process of stop motion animation.  And who can blame him?  It’s a process that would drive many a person insane!

I remember being unsure of the film before first seeing it as a kid.  The adults taking us kids seemed more excited about it, though I’m not sure why.  Maybe it was the concept of marrying Halloween and Christmas into one film, or perhaps it was the visual style that is unique, if nothing else.  I think it was that visual style that initially put me off.  Not because it looked scary, but because Jack didn’t look like a skeleton in the traditional sense.  There’s a silliness to the look of the characters that’s lacking in true scares.  The vampires are a good example as they’re pear shaped and corny.  The look of most of the weird characters resembles that of Beetlejuice, one of Burton’s other popular films of the era.  I was way into X-Men at the time and preferred a realistic look to my characters, so I guess it’s not that surprising in hindsight why I had my reservations about the picture.

The film's protagonist, Jack The Pumpkin King, is bored and depressed over the whole Halloween thing and turns to Christmas for help.

The film’s protagonist, Jack The Pumpkin King, is bored and depressed over the whole Halloween thing and turns to Christmas for help.

Of course, they proved to be unfounded as myself and everyone I went with that day enjoyed the film immensely.  I’ve stated many times in my reviews of other properties that I care little for musicals and that was true of child me as well.  The Nightmare Before Christmas is heavy on song, more so than the traditionally animated Disney pictures of that time, and yet I still found it enjoyable.  There’s a humor to a lot of the film that’s present in the songs as well.  Most especially the “What’s This?” sequence where Jack is observing the differences between Halloween Town and Christmas Town (“The children are throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,”).  That’s not to say they don’t get annoying, as sometimes the characters seem to break into song for the sake of doing so (such as when Jack explains Christmas Town to the rest of the gang), and I’m left wishing they’d just talk like regular folks instead.  The quality of the songs seems to vary too.  Danny Elfman was in charge of the film’s music (and also provided Jack’s singing voice) so I suppose he can be forgiven since he isn’t known as a Broadway composer.

Even though the film is a musical, it’s the visuals that make or break it.  And since the film has proven immensely popular ever since its release, it would seem to be that the visual style was accepted by the general public.  Selick has proven to be a master of the stop motion technique, and though films since have surpassed Nightmare in terms of animation quality, this film still holds up quite well today.  The characters animate very well and, for the most part, and lack the floaty quality many seem to have in the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials.  Selick and his team don’t settle for the easy way in most scenes as characters tend to always be moving in some way as opposed to remaining still.  The only noticeable shortcut, if you will, seems to be the facial expressions of the non Jack characters.  Jack famously had over 400 heads to show various expressions while minor characters presumably had only one, save for maybe a back-up or two.  Sally had to use the same head so as not to disturb her hair, which would have caused a nightmare for the animators.  I suppose then it’s not surprising the lead character is bald.

While Halloween Town is presented in mostly black and white, Christmas Town is the exact opposite.

While Halloween Town is presented in mostly black and white, Christmas Town is the exact opposite.

The animation helps set Nightmare apart from other Disney fare, but the general look of the settings is also quite unique.  Halloween Town is very much rooted in German Expressionism.  There’s hardly a straight building in the town as everything juts out at seemingly impossible angles.  Several characters live in towers and crowded spaces.  Halloween Town seems pretty small in general, with mostly barren land surrounding it.  I suppose some would describe it as “gothic” (which would explain why so many goth girls in my high school seemed obsessed with Jack and Sally), but that seems lazy.  There’s very little color used as it’s mostly shades of gray.  And where color is present it’s often found in minor accents on the characters as opposed to the setting.  In contrast, Christmas Town is an explosion of primary colors and the objects Jack takes from it contrast nicely when they’re present in Halloween Town.  Watching the scene in Christmas Town almost makes one think a Dr. Seuss film would be a good idea for Henry Selick to oversee (as opposed to those wretched live-action films).

Jack playing Santa.

Jack playing Santa.

Tim Burton may get too much credit for Nightmare’s success, but one thing that can’t be taken away from him is the success of the film’s plot.  Dreaming up a world where each holiday has its own world separate from reality is pretty neat, but then taking the next step of having one wage war on the other is quite clever indeed.  Though Halloween Town doesn’t wage war on Christmas Town, they do seek to take over its holiday for at least one year.  Jack is a character of good intentions, but he lies to himself about what it is he’s doing without thinking about the implications this will have on Christmas Town, and Santa Claus to be specific.  He, for example, sees nothing wrong with sending off Boogie’s henchmen to kidnap Santa.  This makes him selfish, as he’s only thinking about curing his own seasonal depression, and short-sighted since he fails to predict the villainous Oogie Boogie’s eventual involvement.  And yet, we as the viewer know that he’s inherently good and he does set things right in the end.  The romance between Jack and Sally feels a bit forced, but I guess expecting for more development in that area out of a children’s moving may be asking too much.

The film settles in at 76 minutes, which is not uncommon for stop motion.  It doesn’t feel that short to me, maybe that’s due to my tepid response to the musical pieces, but it doesn’t feel long or anything.  And I give credit to all involved with the property that no stupid sequels exist such as Jack visits Easter Land or Valentine Town.  There are some spin-off video games and such, though I’ve never experienced any of them.  The unique dual holiday format of the film makes it extremely marketable for Disney, so perhaps that’s good enough for them to not seek out a sequel.

I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas this year for the first time in many years.  I was curious how I would respond to it after so long.  Despite being almost shunned by Disney for most of its life, it very much feels like a Disney picture, though Burton’s involvement is obvious as well.  Some of the songs made my eyes roll, but the visual effects are too charming to resist.  I enjoy the film’s humor and the fact that it separates itself from other holiday films and specials, but also makes sure to harken back to them at times with tongue firmly planted in cheek (“My what a brilliant nose you have!”).  While I don’t disagree with Disney’s decision to originally release the film through Touchstone, I don’t think it’s overly scary for young kids.  Most will recognize the film for what it is, but as always, parents know their kids best and might prefer to watch it first before showing it to the really young.  The film probably doesn’t rank as one of Disney’s best, but it is a fun film to revisit during this time of year, and I regret not purchasing it sooner.

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