For several decades, Tim Burton has proven to be one of the most eccentric filmmakers in the film industry thanks to his unique visual style, thus paving the way for classics like Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and Big Fish, just to name a few. But to debunk one of the internet’s longest-running myths, The Nightmare Before Christmas, arguably Burton’s most iconic creation, wasn’t actually directed by him. Instead, he only produced it as an adaptation of a poem that he had written in 1982 while working as an animator at Disney. Directorial duties ultimately went to Henry Selick, who would later go on to direct other stop-motion animated classics like 1996’s James and the Giant Peach (which Burton also produced) and 2009’s Coraline. And while The Nightmare Before Christmas was initially restricted to Disney’s Touchstone Pictures banner for fear of being too scary for younger audiences, calling it one of the most beloved films of all-time nowadays would be a massive understatement. Upon its release, it became the highest-grossing stop-motion animated film of its time, and it would eventually get properly placed under the Disney banner several years later thanks to annual 3-D re-releases. But this film’s massive imprint on the world of pop culture doesn’t stop there. Its characters have made various appearances at Disney parks, Disneyland’s iconic Haunted Mansion attraction does a special Holiday overlay every year based around the film, and it’s also been featured in several installments of the popular Kingdom Hearts video game series. And when you watch the film that started it all, it’s easy to see why it’s become a holiday tradition for its many devoted fans as it’s truly one of the all-time greats.
In a world where all the major holidays are represented by a collection of fantastical realms, one of the most prominent is the one found behind a pumpkin-shaped door in a tree known as Halloween Town. This land of monsters, ghouls, demons, and all the creatures that you’d expect from this kind of place is ruled by the benevolent ‘Pumpkin King’, Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, with singing vocals by Danny Elfman). However, unbeknownst to the residents of Halloween Town, Jack has begun to grow bored of all the usual Halloween routines and is desperate for something different. Luckily for him, that ‘something different’ soon comes around when he finds the entrances to the other holiday-themed worlds and is immediately drawn to the one themed around Christmas, Christmas Town. Amazed by the sights and sounds of this wondrous landscape, Jack decides that it’s time for the people of Halloween Town to try their hand at this ‘Christmas’ thing. Thus, despite the skepticism of Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), a rag doll who has feelings for Jack, the Pumpkin King leads the rest of the town in preparations to develop their own Christmas, blissfully unaware of how people will react to their unique methods. This plan of theirs also includes them kidnapping the one they call ‘Sandy Claws’ (voiced by Ed Ivory) so that Jack can take his place as the one who gives out all the toys to folks all over the world. However, things get a little more complicated when the three kids who Jack sends to kidnap Santa, Lock (voiced by Paul Reubens), Shock (also voiced by Catherine O’Hara), and Barrel (also voiced by Danny Elfman), instead bring him to the sinister Bogeyman, Oogie Boogie (voiced by Ken Page), who has sinister plans for old St. Nick.
Even after 25 years and all the various stop-motion animated films that have come out since then, the stop-motion animation in this film still stands as some of the best to come from the medium. For those who aren’t that familiar with the process, stop-motion animation is usually quite a laborious procedure to the point where there are often only a few frames of animation that are finished in a single day, and one can only imagine how long it must’ve taken to film some of the sequences in this film, especially the final fight between Jack and Oogie Boogie. Tim Burton may not have been the director on this one, but his trademark visuals are on full display, with director Henry Selick and their team of over 100 artists doing an amazing job when it comes to honoring Burton’s unique style. Plus, while the folks at Disney may have been initially fearful of the film being too intense and scary for younger audiences, this ultimately isn’t that big of an issue. Because the film maintains such a lighthearted and lively atmosphere throughout, its dark, macabre humor (which, of course, is another Burton trademark) manages to undercut the darkest moments in the story without completely neutering any of its horror elements. Just look at the classic sequence where the people of Earth witness Halloween Town’s distorted rendition of Christmas, effectively making the film a fun, twisted spin on classic holiday specials a la Rankin-Bass. And, of course, this film is backed by one of the best soundtracks of all-time courtesy of Tim Burton’s most frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman, with a wide variety of classic tunes ranging from lavish show-tunes like ‘This is Halloween’, ‘What’s This?’, and ‘Oogie Boogie’s Song’ to wistful solos like ‘Jack’s Lament’ and ‘Sally’s Song’.
This film also benefits heavily from a tightly-written script that never skimps on its plot or characters throughout its breezy 76-minute run-time. Nothing ever feels underwritten and nothing ever feels overdone in this endearing story of someone who’s just trying to find a new way to spice up his life. With that in mind, the one and only Jack Skellington proves to be an incredibly sympathetic and likable character right out the gate, even when his optimism about his Christmas plans makes him a little naïve (though not in a ‘bad’ way, to be clear…) when it comes to the consequences of where it’ll lead him. This also applies to a lot of the other characters in this film, because even though they come from a world of scary monsters that regularly celebrates everything that there is to do with Halloween, a lot of them are just as good-natured as Jack is and their passion for the holiday is apparent throughout. There’s Jack’s main love interest Sally, who helps to keep the Pumpkin King in line (after all, she is, as Santa puts it, ‘the only one who makes any sense around this insane asylum’) while also pining for his affections, leading to a sweet romance between the two. There’s the two-faced (figuratively AND literally) mayor of Halloween Town (Glenn Shadix) who consistently (and hilariously) reminds everyone that he’s ‘only an elected official here’. And as for the main villain Oogie Boogie, while his screen-time is mostly reserved for the second half of the film, cabaret singer Ken Page very much steals the show as the exuberant, gambling Bogeyman.
Now I’ll openly admit that I didn’t necessarily ‘grow up’ with The Nightmare Before Christmas the same way that a lot of people from my generation did. At the very least, I was generally familiar with it thanks to Jack and company’s many appearances in Kingdom Hearts and some instances of seeing it in print and whatnot, but to the best of my knowledge, I never watched the film in full until I was already a teenager. Thankfully, though, this did not have a negative effect on my thoughts on the film after that initial viewing. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a meticulously crafted masterpiece, and yes, ‘meticulously crafted’ is a fitting advective in this scenario given that this is a stop-motion animated film. All the hard work that Selick, Burton, and their team did to make this film happen can be seen on-screen, with gorgeous stop-motion animation and a delightfully wacky visual style that is one of the best representations of the artistry that has made Tim Burton the legendary filmmaker that he still is today. This is then paired nicely with a well-written script with layered characters that, in turn, features some of the best songs to ever come out of an animated musical. And at the end of the day, one of the biggest reasons as to why The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a timeless classic is that it manages to work as both a Halloween film and a Christmas film, perfectly representing the best of both holidays to produce what is easily one of the most enjoyable films to watch this time of year.
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