The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Touchstone Picures/Comedy-Horror-Musical RT: 76 minutes Rated PG (some frightening images, macabre humor) Director: Henry Selick Screenplay: Caroline Thompson Music: Danny Elfman Cinematography: Pete Kozachik Release date: October 29, 1993 Voices: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page, Edward Ivory, Susan McBride, Debi Durst.
I can't decide whether Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween flick or a Christmas movie, it could be argued either way. What I do know is that the visuals are brilliant and the basic concept is original, but it's hardly enough to sustain a feature length movie because even at a slim 76-minute running time, the movie seems dragged out. This comedy/horror/musical flick employs stop-motion animation to tell the story of Jack Skellington (Sarandon, Fright Night), one of Halloween Town's most popular residents and his attempt to take over Christmas.
As you might surmise from its name, Halloween Town is a pretty scary place, it's populated by vampires, witches, demons, ghosts and other assorted monsters. Jack (aka The Pumpkin King) leads the annual Halloween celebration each year and he always puts on a great show, but he's grown bored with the whole thing and longs for something completely different. He takes a walk in the forest with his ghost dog, Zero, and finds himself amongst a cluster of trees, each one with a door representing a different day. His curiosity gets the better of him and he goes through a door with a decorated Christmas tree on it. It's the portal to a place called Christmas Town and Jack loves what he sees there- the decorations, the lights, the presents and the joyous feeling of the place. Jack returns home and tries to describe it to the townspeople, but they fail to understand what he's talking about, so he incorporates scary elements into his description before announcing his intention of usurping Santa Claus (aka Sandy Claws) and taking over Christmas. He gives everybody a particular task and they all prepare for a very wild and macabre Christmas Eve. The only one who doesn't like this idea is Sally (O'Hara, Home Alone), the rag doll-like creation of Dr. Finklestein (Hickey, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation), the town's resident mad scientist. She has a premonition that Jack's idea is going to go seriously wrong and she tries to warn him, but he believes that his version of Christmas will be a complete success.
The whole look of The Nightmare Before Christmas reminds me of those old Rankin-Bass specials (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Year Without a Santa Claus) that used to air every December, producer Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Batman) adds his signature morbid touch to make one of the most unique visions of Christmas ever captured on film. The stop-motion animation provides the connection to the Rankin-Bass cartoons, but it all looks fresh and new because filmmaking techniques have advanced since the 60s and 70s. The addition of musical numbers throughout the movie add an extra layer of weird to the whole thing. Director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline) makes a decent full-length feature directorial debut here; unfortunately, the storyline is nothing more than a clever idea that could have easily been condensed into an hour-long TV special. It starts out very strong, but the movie runs out of steam about midway through and it starts to feel pretty sluggish near the end. That's my only real complaint about this movie, the eye-popping visuals make up for the flick's shortcomings as it's one of the most interesting looking movies of the 90s. Halloween Town looks sufficiently gloomy, much of it is bathed in a black-and-white scheme and even the other colors look fairly dingy and washed-out. There's also some neat shout-outs to the old classic horror movies of the 30s, especially The Bride of Frankenstein (Dr. Finklestein and Sally), but it's infused with a dark sense of humor and the movie should appeal mostly to those unusual young children who don't like typical kiddie fare like Pokemon or The Incredibles. The various denizens of this insane asylum of a town include three mischievous children- Lock, Shock and Barrel- who receive a very special assignment in preparation of Halloween Town's first Christmas. Even the smallest details, like the creepy behemoth with an axe permanently embedded in his head, stand out and make the audience notice the unusual nature of this movie. As I rewatched this the other night, I noticed that it might look pretty cool in 3-D and, if I understand correctly, the studio has already done so and rereleased it in that format. That's something that I would love to check out at some point.
Jack Skellington is a skeleton, just in case you aren't sure what he's supposed to be. His enthusiasm when he discovers the magical time of Christmas reminds the viewer of an excitable little boy who won't go to sleep on Christmas Eve because of his excitement over the next day's festivities. Zero, Jack's ghost dog, has a glowing, jack-o'-lantern nose and I think that everybody already knows how this idea will figure into the story. Speaking of ideas, there's some good ones floating around in The Nightmare Before Christmas, like the skeletal reindeer and the coffin-like sleigh that serve as Jack's transport on Christmas Eve. His presents to the children of the world include shrunken heads, Christmas tree-eating snakes and other ghoulish toys that frighten the young recipients. The town band plays dreary renditions of traditional Christmas carols, Jingle Bells sounds like a funeral dirge when these guys take a shot at it. The musical numbers are pretty cool, especially the opening bit when the residents of Halloween Town celebrate their main holiday with "This is Halloween". It's the perfect introduction to the characters and it sets the mood better than any amount of voice over narration could do. It would have been easy for Selick to include a character to narrate the action, much in the same way that Sam the Snowman (Burl Ives) did in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, but the various songs by Danny Elfman do the job just as well. Elfman provides the singing voice of Jack Skellington and Chris Sarandon provides the spoken dialogue. Both men do a great job here as does O'Hara as Sally, the lovelorn creation that keeps trying to warn Jack of the impending disaster that awaits him on his first night out. William Hickey makes a great mad scientist, although I wonder how cool it would have been if Vincent Price had provided that voice. I know that producer Burton is a fan of the horror movie star of the 50s and 60s, but it's possible that Price was too ill to work by the time this movie was in production (he died on October 25, 1993). I suppose it's the details and the visuals that make The Nightmare Before Christmas worth seeing, try not to notice the rather skimpy storyline and you'll probably have a good time with this flick. It's definitely original and it marches to its own drummer, you can't fault a movie for that.