Movie Review – The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Written by Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell
Directed by Henry Selick

While the idea and production design were initially conceived by Tim Burton, the actual execution of The Nightmare Before Christmas was done by a bevy of other talented creators. However, the film is associated with Burton, and many mistake him as the director. We love and remember the picture for Danny Elfman’s music, Henry Selick’s direction, and the fantastic script by Thompson and McDowell. Thompson co-wrote Edward Scissorhands, and McDowell also penned the screenplay for Beetlejuice, so they brought all those elements to the table. The result is a gorgeous macabre take on the Christmas spirit that endures because it stands out from the crowd but reminds us of childhood favorites.

Halloweentown is where ghosts, ghouls, and monsters live in perpetual celebration of all things spooky and scary. Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin-King, seen as the embodiment of the spirit of Halloween, but he’s become bored with doing the same things over and over again. He wants to experience something new, and a stroll leads him to a circle of trees that provide him access to the other holidays. Jack enters Christmas Town and is immediately smitten with the joy and warmth of this new thing; he decides Halloweentown will take over Christmas for this year and sets about trying to recreate what he saw. This leads to trouble, the kidnapping of Santa Claus, and Jack turning the winter holiday into a night of terror for the poor unsuspecting kiddies.

This is a film chock full of details and little moments that keep you locked in and engaged from the opening scene. The world that has been constructed is so in line with Tim Burton’s early work and such its own thing that it makes sense why people keep coming back to this movie. I always want to know more about this realm of holidays afterward, but the story gives us all we need so that we don’t get bogged down in expository world-building. This isn’t the sort of movie that needs a copious backstory; instead, the characters’ actions and the world’s design communicate all of that.

The combination of Tim Burton’s designs and the classic stop motion animation seen in specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer blend together so well. Halloweentown is the sort of place that fits right into the Rankin-Bass magical world of holidays. The circle of trees and their doors to other holiday worlds feels lifted straight out of those specials. I noticed the swirling snow is even animated like the same that fell in Rudolph. However, there’s enough of a difference in those details I mentioned above that this feels like you are exploring new territory. The opening song “This Is Halloween” is just a rush of sight gags and grotesque characters; it will take a few viewings to take everything in.

I did have many questions after watching the film this time, and they were utterly nitpicky ones that I am glad the movie doesn’t directly address. You don’t really need answers to these to enjoy the picture. However, I did wonder what Jack’s status was in Halloweentown. They have a mayor whom I assume was elected. Yet, he listens to Jack like everyone else and just goes along. Santa Claus is very clearly in charge of Christmas Town, so why is there a mayor in Halloweentown if Jack is the Pumpkin King? I also never felt like I clearly understood what Oogie Boogie’s relationship was to the rest of the creatures. The trick-or-treaters work for him but also can go between Oogie and the rest of the residents. I was very confused by that whole dynamic. 

But like I said, these are questions to simmer on, but that should never be answered by the film. The purpose of The Nightmare Before Christmas is to evoke a specific aesthetic and tone. It’s Christmas-y but not like other holiday films and specials. The film serves as a bridge for kids who don’t buy into the sappy, formulaic cartoons that get churned out every year. There’s higher artistic merit here, craftsmanship evident on the screen that someone into the design can really appreciate. Of course, Disney has merchandised the hell of this film after initially pushing it to Touchstone because it was deemed “too scary.” It would be easy to see the avalanche of Jack Skellington merch and be turned off but watching the film reminds us why the picture is still so beloved.

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