By Alex Skrapits
There was once a time when you come across something is that sounds impossible to comprehend, but eventually effects well in the end. We love to get chills through the haunting night of Halloween or spend the warmth, love of family and peace towards good men of Christmas. But, one would imagine: What happens if you mix Halloween and Christmas? The answer: The Nightmare Before Christmas, a stop-motion epic produced by Tim Burton and directed by Henry Selick.
Now, believe it or not, the concept of blending dark, horror and the light-heartened nature of Christmas was…ambitious yet polarizing beforehand. I believe the earliest example that comes to mind is Krampus, a folklore story about a goat-like demon that punishes naughty children on Christmas. Dr. Elmo’s novelty song, “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” exploited dark humor involving a drunk, elderly woman getting accidentally killed by Santa’s reindeer. And of course, there was Silent Night, Deadly Night, a movie that involved a traumatized man dressing up as Santa and killing naughty people, which was controversial yet became a cult classic. I once recall a Hanna-Barbera cartoon crossover special where Casper the Friendly Ghost celebrated his first Christmas with Yogi Bear and his friends as the most lighthearted mix of Halloween and Christmas.
That is, until newcomer visionary Tim Burton created an original poem called The Nightmare Before Christmas in 1982 while he was working at Disney Animation studios and originally planned to make his poem into a short film or television special. However, Burton was fired after the company for finding his other projects too scary for children. After a successful run with his original films, such as Beetlejuice and Batman, Disney hired Burton back after negotiating a deal, began production into a stop-motion film and released it under the Touchstone banner. The movie went from a critical and financial hit to a timeless, holiday classic with merchandising, video games, a comic book sequel, a live concert, and even giving Disney parks a Halloween party makeover, including the film’s characters in the Haunted Mansion ride.
When Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) a.k.a. the king of Halloween Town discovers Christmas Town, he decides to bring Christmas to his town, which results in unpredictable events and consequences.
Ever since the first very frame, the set-up, the establishing shot and brief narration definitely scream, no pun intended, “bedtime story” or “fairy tale”, as Burton envisioned from the beginning. Once the tree with the pumpkin door opens up, we immediately enter into a new world like never before. We venture through Halloween Town, where monsters and ghouls live and passionately celebrate the holiday through frights and scares. We feel welcomed but sometimes, there are things we wish to know more of. Let me be clearer to help you understand. Throughout the movie, the movie is being told very straightforward, there is no depth, detail and complexity among the characters and their environment mentioned, and the movie would be over before you know it. So, while the context feels hollow, why does the story itself still prevail? Again, this is where the “fairy tale” aspect kicks in. When you listen to a fable, it is told simply for us to easily follow and it draws more emotionally towards the characters rather than the scope of the world around them. The musical numbers, which I’ll mention later, are the driving force that helps us understand the story and its characters more effectively than logic. Another worth noting is that the basic dialogue, which at times is puns, fits well because it delivers a timeless feeling similar how many fables are told for many generations. The film also delivers a thought-provoking message of the grass is always greener in a progressive manner throughout Jack’s journey. It is very helpful for those who have struggle and attempting something new, but always stick what you are best at in the end. The story knows exactly how to tell a story right.
Even though Henry Selick takes the directing chair, the artistry of Tim Burton is heavily present throughout the movie. As we see the residents of Halloween Town, every character familiar and new has a creative design while carrying Tim’s signature style. Sure, we were familiar with the Universal classic movie monsters like Dracula or The Wolf Man in the past and yes, there are vampires, werewolves and witches residing there. But, then you see a new breed of monsters that are fresh out of the box. Imagine walking down the street and you spot a family of corpses where they constantly have their son on a leash. Not creative enough? Well then, how about a brain-dead behemoth with an axe on his head or a monster with snake fingers and spider hair? Wait, there’s more! A mad scientist with a skull cap to reveal his brain, a unicycle-riding clown with a removable face, a ghost dog with a small, glowing pumpkin nose, and a Harlequin demon with jagged teeth…the list goes on. For the character animation, each character has their own distinct movement that benefits with their designs and weight. No matter how skinny or heavy the characters look, they move believably in a smooth and constructive frame rate. When the two holidays blend later on, there is a wide variety of possibilities whether making skeleton reindeer or toys that would scare children on Christmas morning. Have you ever seen a child that gets a shrunken head or a giant snake that gobbles up a Christmas tree? I sure haven’t. Not to mention, a decent supply of action during the climax. On a side note, there are some hand-drawn sequences with the ghost creatures, a rarity to spot in a stop-motion movie.
The background animation and sets are highly memorable for their creativity and imagination. Halloween Town is a dark town, full of gothic and distorted architecture with bleak colors that sets the mood of Halloween right. You will walk through a graveyard and walk on top of Spiral Hill that uncurls into a staircase when you get down. I recommend skipping Oogie Boogie’s lair, if I were you. At first glance, it looks like a broken-down treehouse. But, there’s an elevator where it will take you a giant, casino-like room full of neon colors and torture devices if you lose at gambling. All of a sudden, you come across a forest and a circle of trees in the center. Each tree contains a different door representing a different holiday. If you pick the door that is shaped like a Christmas tree, you are entering into the opposite spectrum: Christmas Town. This world is vibrant and colorful full of Christmas decorations, lights, a built-in train track and a carousel full of arctic animals. It presents a childlike wonder and light hearted nature that we are familiar with during the holidays. It almost makes me wish Christmas Town would exist. The animation is truly a marvel of Tim Burton’s design and Selick’s direction.
What is a movie without a cast of memorable characters? Starting off with Jack Skellington, or the Pumpkin King, is the ideal citizen with aspiring ideas but has grown tired of his town’s traditions year after year. After when his discovery, his curiosity, fascination and naivety grows throughout as his attempts of bringing Christmas to Halloween Town causes unintentional trouble which sets the bar of the film’s moral. The scenes involving Jack becoming Santa Claus and delivering presents is the highlight of the film. Sally is a humanoid ragdoll that desires an independent life from her creator, Dr. Finkelstein. Outside of being Jack’s shy love interest, she is the voice of reason and strong-willed when using her disembodied limbs to get out a sticky situation. Zero is Jack’s loyal ghost dog that parodies Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Dr. Finkelstein is the mad scientist that portrays as Sally’s overbearing and overprotective father. The Mayor of Halloween Town is the literal “two-faced” politician either happy or sad. And then we have our villain, Oogie Boogie a.k.a. “The Oogie Boogie Man”. He’s the power-hungry town outcast with a love for gambling, especially with his victims’ lives. Accompanying are his henchmen: Lock, Shock & Barrel, a mischievous trio of trick-or-treating munchkins that more emphasis on the word “trick” than “treat”. As for Santa Claus, or “Sandy Claws”, while he is the holly, jolly ruler of Christmas Town, he shows his limits when he gets kidnapped. As for the other residents, they are more memorable in design than in personality. With that aside, the voice acting is top-notch with each actor giving charisma to their respective characters. Like I mentioned before, while the characters aren’t as complex or fleshed-out, the simplicity of the story brings out a lot of charm to the characters.
Being a Tim Burton project, the music and songs by Danny Elfman are the vital ingredients that elevated the emotional aspect and pacing of the movie. Each song follows the proper guidelines on a how a musical works: they explain what the characters are going through and move the story forward. For example, “Jack’s Lament” discusses Jack’s dilemma of looking for new ideas or “Sally’s Song” discussing Sally does concern about Jack not returning his feelings towards her while fear for his safety. “This is Halloween” is an opening number that definitely defines what world we are about to enter, who the characters are, and why they love Halloween. “What’s This?” is a self-explanatory song about Jack’s inquisitiveness when he explores Christmas Town and its wonders. “Town Meeting” is a humorous number involving Jack sharing his discovery to the town where they are confused and curious upon certain items. “Jack’s Obsession” dwells into Jack’s fixation with Christmas using scientific methods and planning to take over Christmas this year. “Making Christmas” is a fun and catchy song where the residents of Halloween Town make their own toys as Christmas draws near. On the villains’ side, both “Kidnap The Sandy Claws” and the “Oogie Boogie” clearly describe each character’s personality through clever lyrics and well-crafted orchestration. Finally, “Poor Jack” is the living incarnation of the moral where Jack learns the errors of his ways and must set things right. It is heavily dramatic and builds up when he reaches his epiphany. Danny Elfman also provides the singing voice of Jack, which carries the heart and soul of the character, even if he is a living skeleton. These songs are powerful pieces of storytelling and one of Danny Elfman’s best works.
Overall, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Tim Burton classic that embodies everything that a fable has: a simply effective timeless story, breathtaking visuals and creative stop-motion animation, memorable songs and characters. This is a must-watch if you are in a Halloween or Christmas mood. Heck, I would recommend watching it on the end of Halloween since it transitions to Christmas later on in the movie. If you have younger children, I would let parents watch it with them. Who knew mixing Halloween and Christmas would lead to something amazing?