At first glance an animated movie about skeletons, leaf filled rag dolls, creepy children, pumpkins, ghosts goblins and yes, Santa Claus would make for a very “messy” movie that would fall on its face in the first frame. Such a film would probably go right to the bargain bin and be forgotten, and certainly not be nominated AFI’s top 10 animated movies. Yes, such a movie was not only able to make that list it has gone on to become a perennial favorite of mine alongside the likes of a Christmas Carol, It’s A Wonderful Life, Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, the animated Grinch, and A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Round about this time of the year, some twenty years ago, my dad and I decided to go to the movies. We had seen a trailer for what looked to be a very “different” Christmas movie on TV and attached to Jurassic Park, and it seemed intriguing. The commercials boasted that this was to be the first full length stop-motion animated film.
The movie was the Nightmare Before Christmas. What got us interested was a name attached to the film, “From Producer Tim Burton.” I had already known of him from the 1989 Batman and the movie Edward Scissorhands. Both were movies I really enjoyed ( Batman more so) and this sounded interesting. It is perhaps fitting as such an odd mix of a movie could only be successful if it came from a visionary imagination. Arguably, Burton’s best films are his original works.
Appropriately the idea for this movie came to Tim Burton while on a trip to the store when he saw the Halloween and Christmas decorations mashed so close together and he wondered, “what if those two holidays really did meet.” Naturally the end result would be pandemonium. After all the two holidays couldn’t be any more different if they tried. Quick: On the top of your head, what comes to mind of when you think of Halloween? Now what comes to mind when you think of Christmas?
To some the movie seems weird, creepy, twisted and just odd. While that is certainly true there is a heart to this film, one that like the Grinch’s small heart seems to grow bigger with each viewing. In many ways it shares a similar plot thread with the Rankin/Bass Holiday classics Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer and The Year Without A Santa Claus in the sense that each film deals with the year that the world almost missed Christmas, due to extenuating circumstances, and in this case instead of a bad blizzard or Santa being sick, Santa is kidnapped by Holiday hooligans from Halloweentown.
The films prologue, which was loosely a parody of Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas intones,
“Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams. For the story your about to be told began with the holiday worlds of old. Now you’re probably wondered where holidays come from .If you haven’t I’d say it’s time you begun.”
The story opens on Halloween night when the denizens of Halloweentown are celebrating their big day. These citizens are basically the monsters, goblins, ghosts and witches that do all the haunting and pranks and other things we associate with Halloween. Their “king,” Jack Skellington ( voiced by Chris Sarandon, better known as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride, with singing voice supplied by composer Danny Elfman) arrives to top off their festivities. While everyone congratulates Jack on another great Halloween, something is amiss with Jack. He isn’t quite happy in his work and needs a little bit more, sure he’s famous, but he’s feeling a deep longing inside of him that isn’t quite being filled.
Unknown to Jack, Sally the Rag doll ( voiced by Cathrine O’Hara, Home Alone and Home Alone 2) is watching, secretly she is in love with the Skeleton man and wishes to show him. Followed by his red-nosed ghost dog , Zero, Jack wanders into a forest and discovers a grove of trees that can allow him to enter into the lands of any holiday. The door that attracts him the most, is the one for Christmas. He opens the door and ends up in the winter wonderland of Christmas town.
His heart is so filled with joy and warmth and he is delirious with excitement about Christmastown. He returns home to share his discovery with his friends at Halloween town only to find out that they are missing the point. While he wants to have a jolly Christmas, their efforts twist and warp into their own vision. Like the Grinch he wants to take Christmas, but unlike the Grinch, it’s not because he hates it. Jack loves this Christmas thing, even if he can’t understand it, and actually thinks he’s doing Santa a favor by giving him a year off.
Sally tries to intervene, to no avail. When Santa is kidnapped by three Halloween pranksters, Lock, Shock and Barrel ( Voiced by O’Hara, Elfman and Paul Reubens of Pee-Wee Herman fame) it’s time for Jack to step into Santa’s place, and much hilarity ensues. In the end Jack rediscovers that what he does, really is the best. He is the pumpkin king and he delights in giving people screams. However he also discovers with Sally that the warmth and love he felt at Christmas was right there in front of him the whole time.
The characters are well developed and endear themselves greatly, even if they are creepy Halloween creatures. They have a certain sense of whimsy to them that helps offset any horror aspects. Much of this is due to the expressions on the puppets. You see Jack’s eye-sockets widen with excitement, and although he has no eyes, they convey so much emotion that it seems real. The voice actors help seal the deal, bringing a certain creepiness when needed, and in the case of Jack and Sally, a certain innocence.
The love story between Jack and Sally is probably one of the most touching romances in the annals of children’s films, and ranks up there with the best of them in the Disney cannon. There’s a certain innocence to the relationship, like the school girl who has a crush on the brainiac kid who is so wrapped up in his pursuits that he doesn’t notice her. It takes not only Jack’s plans going amiss, but Sally helping Jack by trying to help fix the mess he made, for him to realize just how much she really cares for him.
In many ways this movie, which was released by Disney, is the antithesis of the Disney movie mantra that you can be whatever you want to be. This movie says that you can be what you are meant to be, which is a much stronger, and much truer, statement. Initially Disney had been apprehensive of this movie, releasing it under the Touchstone banner as they thought it would not only be unable to be marketable, but they were concerned it would be frightening. 20 years later the movie has legions of fans, tons of merchandise around this time of year, and Disney even refits their Haunted Mansion ride at the Disney theme parks to incorporate Nightmare Before Christmas during the days between Halloween and Christmas. For movie that seemed so creepy, it struck a chord with viewers and became popular.
It’s easy to see why. Along with its heartwarming story, the visuals are spell-binding. Stop-motion animation is a truly under appreciated art form, and this film does it so well that it could be computer animated. Each frame was painstakingly created by skilled animators and puppeteers and their efforts paid off.
A bit of trivia: despite the fact the film is billed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, he did not direct it. He wrote and produced the film as he was busy directing Batman Returns. Directing duties fell to director Henry Selick who did an excellent job translating Burton’s ideas to film and supervising the difficult animation process. From there, he would go on to direct other stop-motion films including Coraline and James and the Giant Peach.
Most surprising to some, this movie is actually a musical. Tim Burton’s friend and frequent collaborator Danny Elfman gave this film it’s musical ambiance. His score heavily relies on low brass and low woodwinds, giving it an eerie, somber and almost Eastern European sound that works perfectly with the German expressionistic design of the worlds. Elfman also demonstrates that he is an exceptional lyricist, with such songs as “This is Halloween”, “What’s This?” and “Making Christmas”, that contain some almost Seussian rhymes, only help make this story such a delightful Holiday treat. It’s just a shame that “What’s This?” and “Making Christmas” haven’t become holiday standards.
At 20 years, Nightmare Before Christmas is as spellbinding of a holiday treat as it was when it first arrived in theaters. The subtleties and nuances only make it much more savory. Best of all, it’s one of those rare Christmas movies you can get away with watching in October and have it fit so nicely. The only thing I have to say in conclusion, is best summed up in the words of the epilogue found on the soundtrack for Nightmare Before Christmas… but I’ll let the man, the myth, and the legend that is Patrick Stewart say it for me….
From the soundtrack for the movie,