Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas – Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas – Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Directed by: Henry Selick | 77 minutes | animation, family, fantasy, musical | Original voice cast: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Ed Ivory, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page, Susan McBride, Debi Durst, Greg Proops, Kerry Katz, Randy Crenshaw, Sherwood Ball, Carmen Twillie

Tim Burton has a distinct style of his own, which is prominent in every aspect of this film. Everything exudes the peculiar, dark and fairytale atmosphere that we associate with this filmmaker. However, the director of this film is not Burton, but Henry Selick.

Selick had already gained quite some experience with stop-motion animation (for example with the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “James & the giant peach”), and was therefore indispensable for this project. The figures, distinctive world, and overall atmosphere may have sprung from Burton’s mind, but Selick was essential to bringing his creations to life.

The two have really made a beautiful piece of art. For an hour and a half you will find yourself in a wonderful and completely unique world, in which you will be amazed. The film is set in three worlds: Halloween City, Christmas City, and the Real World, with Halloween City being the most prominent. This is the home of our protagonist Jack Skellington, a skeleton with long, thin limbs and spider-like movements. Jack is beautifully animated, with a range of facial expressions and even blinking eyes to add to the realism. About four hundred different interchangeable heads were used to show these expressions. The whole stop-motion process requires such a detailed and intensive approach. To record a new frame, the position of the doll has to be slightly changed. When the frames are subsequently played back one after the other, it looks like a smooth movement, comparable to (the process of) a cartoon. Since there are 24 frames (frames) in a second of film, the doll has to be adjusted 24 times per second. In addition, there are hundreds of characters in the film, who appear in 230 sets. So it’s no wonder that the makers have been working on the film for three years.

Jack isn’t the only notable figure in Halloween Town. On the contrary: the place is packed with special characters. For example, there is the mayor who has a long pointed hat and two faces, one at the front and one at the back of his head. When his mood changes, he simply turns his head. Then there’s mad scientist Doctor Finklestein, who, like Dr. Frankenstein makes his own creations, and like Dr. Strangelove is in a wheelchair. One of his creations is Sally, a rag doll, whose limbs are held together with simple sewing, and can also be let go without consequences. Sally makes regular use of this. For example, she tries to distract villain Oogie Boogie with her detached and independently moving leg, while she herself tries to free the captive Santa Claus a little further away. Oogie Boogie is a rag doll who has all kinds of insects as guts, and who is literally and figuratively a Boogieman. Besides his evil nature, he also likes swinging music. There’s also a hefty woodcutter who has a permanent ax in his skull, witches, snake-like figures, and the evil versions of Kwik, Kwek, and Kwak (Lock, Shock, and Barrel), Oogie’s henchmen.

The film is in fact an animated musical, much like Disney’s ‘The Beauty and the Beast’ from 1992. The music is written (and sometimes sung) by Burton’s regular composer Danny Elfman. Although the background music is usually very atmospheric, the individual songs here and there leave something to be desired. About half of the songs are quite tame and a bit on the long side, often without a compelling melody or accessible structure. Other songs are effective again, and know how to express certain emotions well, such as melancholy, enthusiasm, and amazement, where the thoughts of other characters sometimes provide a comic note. It’s a shame the music isn’t a bit more successful across the board, especially since the whole story is put into a musical form.

The plot and story itself are pretty thin, especially for a film of almost eighty minutes. The concept itself is nice, but the power of the film is ultimately not in the story itself, but especially in the small finds and events within the story. The character of Jack and all of Halloween Town and its collision with the real world and Christmas Town is the source for funny and inventive individual scenes and ideas such as the scary presents that Jack delivers to the children in his capacity as Santa Claus. Or Jack’s misconception that Santa’s name is “Sandy Claws,” and his surprise that he doesn’t have claws at all, just tiny hands. Or that Lock, Shock, and Barrel kidnap the Easter Bunny instead of Santa, who then jumps out of the bag very dry. Or Jack’s scientific research into Christmas attributes, surgically cutting open teddy bears and crushing Christmas baubles. Or the reindeer made by Finkelstein in a Frankenstein-like way, which consist only of bones.

It’s moments like this, and of course the beautiful animation and atmosphere of the film, that make ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ more than worthwhile.

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