Written by Tim Burton, Michael McDowell, and Caroline Thompson
Directed by Henry Selick
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a dark and comedic tale of Christmas in a style Tim Burton and Henry Selick are noted for. If you’re familiar with other films they have put out in the past, such as James and the Giant Peach as well as Corpse Bride, then both the style of the movie and the darkness of the tale will not be of any great surprise. This is not a jolly and bright Christmas tale but instead incorporates black comedy into a setting that’s a bit on the macabre side.
In a time and place where each holiday season seems to inhabit its own special corner of the world, Halloween has just ended. The residents of Halloweentown think it was their “most horrible” yet. Mayor Jack Skellington should be overjoyed, but he isn’t. Instead, he is growing tired of trying to outdo himself year after year in the same vein. He happens upon Christmas Town and finds something so different, so intriguing that he’s instantly inspired to put his own spin on the town. He sets three of the residents of Halloweentown on a mission to kidnap Santa Claus so he can pose as the jolly old elf.
Filmed in stop-action claymation, The Nightmare Before Christmas took three years to make frame by frame at 24 frames per second. The effect is wonderful, though, as the clay characters act in a smooth way throughout the story. From the movement of their mouths and their facial expressions to the flow of the musical numbers, the film has a sleek feel to it, rather than a jerkiness I’ve seen in other stop-action productions. This style also gives the film a less flat look to it. Computer-generated animation has been trying to achieve this for years and it has improved, although to look at the current crop of computer-animated films versus The Nightmare Before Christmas which was released in 1993 and you will realize there still is room to go.
The characters are all wonderful. Jack is voiced by Chris Sarandon (composer Danny Elfman voices the songs for the character, however) and is the central character of the story. Sally is voiced by Catherine O’Hara and is the creation of Doctor Finkelstein (voiced by William Hickey). Sally loves Jack but is unsure of her role in the world since she often seems like nothing more than a doll. The characters work very well together throughout the film and are convincing both in their environment and with each other. I think it’s because of this style of animation that they seem more alive and real than traditionally animated characters or the current crop of computer-generated imagery.
The towns are also depicted as you would expect. Halloweentown has the dark macabre setting so often associated with that holiday and its decorations. Christmastown has bright lights reflecting off of the white snow and happiness abounding among the residents with bright colors all around. Although both sets of characters seem happy in their worlds, they are also very different, which is part of what makes the story so entertaining.
Elfman has penned the songs as well and they are great fun and cover a variety of styles. They are fun songs and should be enjoyed in the same vein many songs from top Disney composers are, although the darkness of the setting has put many off. Just as You’re a Mean One, Mister Grinch has long been enjoyed and hummed along, these tunes will also stick with you for a while with a whimsical and dark look at the season.
Younger children might be frightened by some of the images and themes in The Nightmare Before Christmas. When Jack finally achieves his dream of handing out presents in lieu of Santa, some of the presents are definitely more along the lines of mature Halloween fare and might frighten some sensitive younger children. It didn’t seem to affect my children, but this isn’t the saccharine sweet happily ever after tome many people are used to viewing over the holiday season. I do enjoy a little fun and silliness during the holidays and don’t want to always take things so seriously. If you are looking for the “true meaning of Christmas”, you won’t find it here. But you will find a fun film that my family has enjoyed repeatedly just because it is so different than many of the other holiday offerings.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is definitely not a movie that can be pigeon-holed into one category. It has music, comedy, drama, darkness, and suspense all wrapped up into one terrific package.
• Audio Commentary with Director Henry Selick and Director of Photography Pete Kozachik
• The Making of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
• Storyboard to Film Comparison
• Deleted Scenes
• The World of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas
• Posters and Trailers
• Tim Burton’s Early Films
• James & The Giant Peach Theatrical Trailer