The Nightmare Before Christmas
Directed by Henry Selick
Written by Caroline Thompson
Hype is a dangerous thing. I know there are some people out there who believe that hype or overhype is something for which we can only blame ourselves. A movie, TV show, book, or album isn’t overhyped; we overhype it, so if we’re let down, it’s our own fault. I can understand the argument, especially when it relates to new movies. With older films, the burden is heavier, the onus a little larger. If a person has never seen Citizen Kane before but they’re aware of the love most people have for it and its placement in the canon of American film, they might be let down when they watch it.
The Nightmare Before Christmas, of course, is not Citizen Kane. It does sometimes feel, though, that some fans are treating this film similarly, putting it on a pedestal that’s not fully warranted. Part of the movie’s rise throughout the past two decades, I believe, is fully thanks to a man who’s inextricably linked to the project despite not being as instrumental to its execution and success. Does Tim Burton still have the capacity to surprise anymore? As soon as one of his acting muses, Johnny Depp, became a massively popular superstar, Burton descended into predictability. “Oh, there’s going to be a remake of Willy Wonka with Johnny Depp, directed by Tim Burton? Well, of course.” “Oh, Tim Burton’s directing Sweeney Todd? Well, of course he is. And of course it stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.” And so on.
The emo/Goth sensibility that permeates The Nightmare Before Christmas is so infused in pop culture now, especially in mainstream stores like Hot Topic, that it very quickly tips into being obnoxious. That said, as much as I think that Tim Burton’s career has become rote–and believe me, without even realizing it, I was an apologist of his for a long time–the design of The Nightmare Before Christmas is impressive, even as it seems like it’s always been around. That may be the best compliment I can make about this movie, especially in its look and the score and songs by Danny Elfman. They sound so right, so perfect, that it’s shocking to me that they weren’t always around in that way. From “What is This?” to “This is Halloween” to the overall score, the music in this movie is arguably as iconic as the themes in 1989’s Batman, in terms of Elfman’s filmography. I’d argue that the score to this movie is moreso, because while we all may remember the opening theme to Batman, that film’s music belongs as much to Prince as it does to Elfman.
The design, as I mentioned above, is also quite impressive, when you think about how commonplace it seems now. Looking at The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1993 must have been something of a shock compared to what it feels like now. This isn’t just because, well, looking at something 18 years after its release automatically engenders new ideas, new feelings in each of us. No, the design of the movie couldn’t have seemed rote then, though it may well do so now should it appear in a new movie. If there is such a phrase as “Burton-esque,” then it springs from the look, the feel, and the colors of this movie. Halloween Town is given as much care as the world of Gotham City was, and it arguably improves on that film’s appearance. Even here, in a world filled with grim characters and dark thoughts, there are bright colors, reds, greens, browns, and blacks. The warped, skewed designs of each character, from the wolfman who stands in the background to Jack, Sally, Dr. Finkelstein, and the Mayor, are all striking and arresting images to present, especially in a film ostensibly for children (older children, sure, but kids nonetheless).
So much of The Nightmare Before Christmas makes us think of Tim Burton that some people may not even realize he didn’t direct the movie. Though he produced it and wrote the story on which the film is based, the director is Henry Selick. Selick, who’d go on to direct James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, proves now and has proven since that he’s an expert in utilizing stop-motion animation to its fullest. Though the technology has improved and his scope has widened since–I would argue that Coraline is the best animated film that didn’t come from Walt Disney Pictures in at least the last decade–Selick shows even here that he’s a master of the form. But in some ways, I appreciate his work on his future films more despite never claiming full authorship. Yes, Selick’s work since 1993 has been largely based on worlds someone else created, whether it was Roald Dahl or Neil Gaiman, but there’s something more vibrant and spooky in his films that seemed as if it was waiting to leap out of the source material.
Here, it is legitimately hard to separate Burton from Selick. While Burton isn’t the director, the design and story are his. This is a case where we have to acknowledge the work of the builder and the architect, while accepting that the builder wouldn’t have made the building without the blueprints. Selick has shown since this film that he has a unique vision, but even though he put in so much time and effort into making this film a reality, Burton’s work can’t be ignored.
Though the design, music, and animation of this film are excellent–and they are, really–the story is lacking. The basic idea, that Jack Skellington is bored with Halloween and wants to branch out to a new holiday once he discovers it, is clever and there’s a lot of humor mined from how the world of Halloween would get Christmas all wrong. And certainly, Jack’s awe at Christmas Town is palpable and understandable. But I wonder if the sheer, tedious work of making a full-length stop-motion animated film became too much for Selick. This movie, which runs just over 75 minutes with the credits, could’ve easily been 15 minutes longer just to let the subplots breathe a bit. Sally, the sewn-together rag doll who is Jack’s love interest, has so little to do in the film and so few interactions with Jack that their coming together at the end, while expected, comes out of nowhere. Her antagonistic relationship with Dr. Finkelstein, who created her, also goes nowhere. She’s constantly trying to escape him (and succeeding mostly, as we see in perhaps the film’s most macabre image, of Sally blissfully jumping off the tower in the doctor’s lab) and he’s constantly trying to lock her away.
That lack of comeuppance is genuinely frustrating to me, as it replicates itself in the plight of Lock, Shock, and Barrel. These three minions (voiced by Elfman, Paul Reubens, and Catherine O’Hara, who also voices Sally) are tasked with kidnapping Santa Claus so Jack can take his place on Christmas Eve to deliver presents to the children of the world. When Jack gives them this assignment, he gives them a simple warning: don’t leave Santa Claus with Oogie Boogie, a malevolent force who lives on the outskirts of town. Being avid moviegoers, we all know what happens next: the minions give Santa Claus to Oogie Boogie, so he can get tortured and potentially killed. This provides the ammo for the assumed face-off between Oogie and Jack, but while that does impress, I didn’t know why Jack never turned to Lock, Shock, and Barrel and was as angry at them for treating Santa Claus so disrespectfully, so rudely, so dangerously, as Oogie does. Sure, Oogie is the bad guy, but it’s not like he literally yanks Santa Claus away for his own evil purposes.
Logistical questions like this one pestered at me as I watched The Nightmare Before Christmas for the first time in a couple of years. Some were more nitpicky–where is the crossing where the holiday trees are located and why do you not have to exit a door, as you do to enter, to leave?–but wondering why characters don’t get their just desserts in the finale is a bit more concerning. If I want some kind of pay-off (and even in a movie like this, I expect it) and none is forthcoming, we have a major problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I do like The Nightmare Before Christmas. I think it’s got some genuine cleverness and wit in the script, it looks oddly beautiful, and the music has been stuck in my head for a few days now. I suppose the easy way to put it is that I don’t get why Jack Skellington has become as popular and profitable as Mickey Mouse to the Walt Disney Company. I understand why they’re selling so much related to the film; I just don’t know why so many people are buying it. Perhaps it’s that the characters, while visually arresting, are given so few traits that we glom our own personalities onto the creatures we’d want to be most like. In that respect, there’s no question that The Nightmare Before Christmas is an unvarnished success.
– Josh Spiegel