The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)


There is a misconception that, because of his appearance and many of the dark subjects in his movies, Tim Burton was promoting goth culture.  While it is true that he contributed to it, sometimes unwittingly, when it comes to the '80s subculture that sprang from dressing in black and listening to Bauhaus, he often openly mocked it.  Beetlejuice is a prime example because, although Winona Ryder's character is one of the heroes, she is also overly dressed even for most goth kids at the time and cartoonishly depressed.  Often the goths were just outsiders that thought the music as the aesthetic were cool, which in some ways I'm sure Burton did at a younger age before he got stuck being expected to make a certain kind of movie over and over again.

Rather than following a trend the aesthetic, and this was true for a lot of goths I knew, was less Vampira and more Dr. Caligari or, even more often, an update of '30s Universal and '60s Hammer styles.  There were dark themes, and the vampire thing was way overdone (it doesn't take a lot of money for a teenager to look like Dracula), but these were from classic sources and not the influence of Satan like a lot of people thought.  While this blend of classic movies and German expressionism was definitely part of the set design in Beetlejuice, particularly of the afterlife, it truly came alive in The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman) is the Pumpkin King, the central figure of Halloweentown and the one who keeps the spirit of the season alive.  Unfortunately, every Halloween seems to be the same, and Skellington seeks something new.  He finds it when he enters a grove with trees for each of the major Western holidays and, curious, explores the one that shows a decorated tree.  Amazed by the bright colors, snow and general happiness of the place he decides that what Halloweentown needs is a little Christmas. 

Since there is already someone in charge of Christmas Jack must get Santa Claus (Edward Ivory) out of the way in order for Skellington to replace him for the season.  Everyone is excited except for Sally (Catherine O'Hara), the creation of mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey) who has a crush on Jack and has premonitions of his attempts to take over as Santa Claus ending in disaster.  Of course he doesn't listen, having the mischievous children Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (O'Hara) and Barrel (Elfman) kidnap the jolly old elf.  Unfortunately, while filling in for Santa, the real one is left at the mercy of Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), an exiled citizen of Halloweentown, and soon Jack must rescue Santa, Sally and the entire holiday after realizing what a mistake he made.

Although it says Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton himself was busy making Batman Returns.  The directing job, which included overseeing all the stop-motion animation, went to animator Henry Selick, who up to that time had directed the video "Party at Ground Zero" for Fishbone and had made a short animated film called Slow Bob in the Lower Dimensions, that was scored by the Residents and featured on MTV from time to time when they did animation shorts.  Selick was the perfect choice because, even though Burton wrote the original poem for The Nightmare Before Christmas and had some say in how it looked, it was Selick's touch that brought the world to life. 

The other important element was Danny Elfman.  Elfman's band Oingo Boingo had originally been formed as part of his brother Richard's independent film Forbidden Zone, and once Danny went solo he started branching out into doing film scores, most notably with Beetlejuice.  Elfman went further with The Nightmare Before Christmas, supplying lyrics and music and singing the lead part of Jack Skellington.  As much as Burton's vision and Selick's animation brought the world to life it is Elfman's music that is the most memorable. 

This all works to make what could have been just another "save Christmas" movie into one of the best Halloween, and Christmas, movies ever made.  It took three years to produce as everything seen on the screen is stop motion or in-camera effects.  I did see it when it first came out and, honestly, until I saw what year it was from forgot that the movie is almost 30 years old, as everything in it, from the music to the visuals, appears as if it could have just been released in at any time during that period.  While there is a mixture of old and new none of the technology shown in the "real" world is specifically from any era, which gives the movie a timeless feel. 

The Nightmare Before Christmas is also a breath of fresh air for those of us who think most Christmas music and specials are a specific kind of annual torture we have to endure for months on end.  I would rather here children joyfully singing about kidnapping Santa Claus and all the things they are going to do to him rather than ever hear one note of "Last Christmas" ever again. Selick's animation also helps connect the movie with true Christmas classics like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Year Without a Santa Clause, which are obvious influences on Selick's style as much as Salvadore Dali or the German expressionist filmmakers.  

The fact that it bridges two major holidays is a plus, meaning it is one of the few Christmas-themed movies that isn't necessarily tied to the season.  It was, and still is, an amazing accomplishment of both stop-motion animation and music, with the only thing feeling off is that the romance between Jack Skellington and Sally is not properly developed enough to be believable.  That's something I am more than willing to let slide in this case.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Time: 76 minutes
Starring: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O'Hara, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page, Edward Ivory
Director: Henry Selick



 

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