The Nightmare Before Christmas: Film Review

Sometimes it's easy to forget exactly how macabre and demented The Nightmare Before Christmas can be. Giant skeletons wise in the ways of frightening people? Ghostly dogs that float instead of stride foot-by-foot? An entire community who thrives on the art of scaring the bejeezus out of people for the relishing necessity of it all? Yet around both Halloween and Christmas, a time typically reserved for the joy in our hearts, Henry Selick and Tim Burton's gloriously gothic masterpiece has become a rock-hard institution. But it's more than just a hybrid holiday musical. As an allegory mirroring conflict, inspiration, and determination between pseudo inter-cooperative worlds. The Nightmare Before Christmas is simply a phenomenal anecdote about overcoming monotony and gloominess in a melancholy little universe.

Though Selick is pegged as director and the Burton / Elfman team recede to "merely" production and musician status, the story of Jack Skellington billows uncontrollably with that distinctive charm that a Tim Burton film emits. Based off of a poem he wrote during his misaligned times in the animation department at Disney, The Nightmare Before Christmas takes a much more bleak persona than the "House of Mouse" really gravitates towards. This is a shame, because films like this and Disney's own The Black Cauldron show that darker themes can assemble compelling pieces of effective animated work. Alas, if it weren't for Disney's skepticism, we might not have The Nightmare Before Christmas in its current morbidly entertaining state. You'd think that an animated flick filled with removable limbs, dancing skeletons, and pitch-dark cinematography wouldn't be suitable for kids. Somewhere in its blend of non-ghoulish Halloween mannerisms and mild Christmas joy, it finds a balance that actually works wonderfully for people of just about every taste and age.

Taking cues from the rhythmic flow of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, one of Burton's influences from his youth, Jack Skellington's (Chris Sarandon, The Princess Bride) story follows suit as a similar tale of a bleak and depressed character's awakening due to the glow of Christmas cheer. Year after year, he and the people of Halloween Town scare up a storm. It's their entire way of life, actually, starting with plans that begin with brainstorming and blueprints the day after Halloween. As you travel through the city in the film's introductory flight through the scenery ("This is Halloween"), all the things that remind you of Halloween's atmosphere seem to dwell here. References from Nosferatu to Hamlet -- even to a heap of Burton's prior works, most notably the black-and-white candy-striping and creature concepts from Beetlejuice -- echo in our introduction to Jack's melancholy bubble. It's a sly world with countless little clues and nuggets of smile-inducing secrets hidden in its scenery, things that will continue to jump out at you with each viewing. There's so many delightfully perceptible gems within the crowd of Halloween Town's ghosts, monsters, and witches -- including the Frankenstein's monster-ish alchemist Sally (Catherone O'Hara, Home Alone) who slyly drugs her overbearing master just so she might mingle with the excitement of the holiday.

But Jack is worn down by countless years of this same old hooplah, just like the way us society-laden people can get with the repetition of our jobs; while on a stroll amid a contemplative and depressive stupor ("Jack's Lament") about it, he stumbles across a series of colorful doors in the woods. One of the doors in particular grabs his humdrum attention: a door with a brightly-decorated pine tree. Stumbling down the rabbit hole in a very Alice in Wonderland fashion, he falls into a colorful place filled with drastically different sights, sounds, colors ... everything. Watching Jack's skinny body darting around Christmas Town as he begins to sing about the neon world that surrounds us every single year (What's This?") is kind of like watching a kid's first trip to a toy store. Though his trip to Christmas Town might also seem visually comparable to the Grinch's squirm through Whooville, his budding desire to partake in this Christmas' festivities shows the opposite side of that coin -- transforming Jack's good natured outreach into destructive ruin once he and his deviant-spirited buddies try to seize the holiday.

Visually, Burton's concepts of these polar-opposite worlds, ones that mirror and pour into each other in both intentional and unintentional ways, are some of the most ornately detailed and expertly captured shots in stop-motion -- and in animation altogether. To get these images, Burton had to build his own team of animators from the ground up, thus creating his own dark world. I relish in the darkness of Burton's specific type of universe; some film enthusiasts find his gothic textures and glitzy Elfman scores a bit repetitive, whereas I can't ever get enough. Pete Kozachik, also the cinematographer for Tim Burton's quasi-sequel Corpse Bride, exhibits an astounding capacity to capture each and every ounce of tangible realism inside Nightmare's 24 frames-per-second motion. There is so much eloquence in the visual "voice" that this film exhibits, rich with a nearly-immeasurable amount of inventiveness present in each shot that gives every glance something different to focus on.

But it's the rhythmic and quick editing style stitched together with its utterly charming song pieces and vocal work that make The Nightmare Before Christmas a true stunning success in the realm of animation. Elfman's vocalization of "singing" Jack in his seamlessly charming stage presence gives the off-faceless orchestrator a classy and integral part into the narrative. He's a star as Jack, but not the most surprising success. Easily the most well-achieved role comes in Catherine O'Hara's honest and eclectic sweetness as Sally. It's one of Nightmare's most compelling farces -- the handmade character, stuffed and stitched together by a half-hearted creator, shows the most human of emotion in Halloween Town. Jack's animated emotional structure gives us a gravitating stage presence to entertain (not so far off from the desires of a certain "Ghost with the Most"), but Sally's trapped outreach to the blinded "hero" stands as the core theme of the film.

It's only fitting that one of my favorite musical sequences in all of cinema, a rarity for a non-musical oriented film lover like myself, occurs in The Nightmare Before Christmas when a befuddled Jack sings to revitalize himself in the arms of an angelic stone gargoyle. In its eerie graveyard setting, the scene gathers together every element that makes the film a success -- the gothic nature of its tone, Elfman's phenomenal vocals, as well as the outstanding play on character paradigms and emotional colors -- into one fantastic epiphany. Burton's brainchild of a film exhibits mannerisms and atmosphere that ensnare the "Halloween" essence inside of its audience, while the sense of hope and rejuvenation amid darkness do the same for their "Christmas" counterparts. It achieves a lot in its short hour-and-fifteen minute time with its audience, thereby giving us something to return and marvel at in the same manner as Jack's first discovery -- and, in a sense, reminiscent of our own first discovery -- of Christmas.


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