Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) is a stop-motion animated holiday film that pushed the boundaries of technological storytelling at the time of its release. Based on a poem by Burton, the film is helmed by director Henry Selick who’s gone on to director other animated classics such as James and the Giant Peach (1996) and later, Coraline (2009).
The film features the music of acclaimed composer Danny Elfman, who also provided the singing voice for protagonist Jack Skellington. Actor Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride) provided the character’s speaking voice. He is paired with actress Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone) who voices Sally the ragdoll.
Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King has grown bored of the redundancy of Halloween, the only holiday he has ever known. After stumbling upon Christmas Town, Jack is instantly entranced and inspires to him to bring the Yuletide holiday to Halloween Town – perverting it into a macabre yet fantastical celebration. Also, he kidnaps Sandy Claws.
There’s no doubt that The Nightmare Before Christmas is a technological demonstration of storytelling that Selick and his team dedicated an ungodly amount of hours to. It’s, in a word, ambitious and that’s putting it simply.
The ghastly imagery and immediately unsettling characters are offset by the masterful musical talent of Elfman and undeniably intriguing worlds that the film focuses on – each aspect together cultivates a seminal piece of animated storytelling.
But while the film might have been a technical marvel at the time, it hasn’t aged well. Although this doesn’t take away from the sheer impressiveness as a whole project, the chunkiness of the animation is just a tad bit off-putting and, sadly yet obviously, simply doesn’t compare to newer stop-motion animations – especially if your comparing it to the likes of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), Isle of Dogs (2018), and Coraline.
That being said being said, The Nightmare Before Christmas still holds its own in other, more timeless aspects of its storytelling.
There is much to be said about the character of Jack Skellington; a character who has become nothing short of iconic in no small part to his attractively interesting design. Both Elfman and Sarandon bring life to the character – perfectly blending with one another to create a seamless divide between the character’s ironically colorful personally in spite of his otherwise off-putting simplicity.
Skellington’s character arc can be boiled down to the equivalent of a bored 5-year old who’s messing around with someone else’s toys until they feel better. And because of this, Jack still sits somewhere below The Grinch in terms of cinematic fake Santas. Nonetheless, Jack was nothing if not entertaining.
Sally, on the other hand, to be far more interesting as character in my opinion. O’Hara provided a mix of vulnerability and strength that was fitting for the film’s most multifaceted character. In spite and because of her obvious caring for Jack, Sally would go as far as to ruin Jack’s insane abduction of Christmas to save him, even if it meant he’d be a little disappointed. She goes as far as to risk her life to save Santa from Oogie Boogie to save both Jack and Christmas. That’s a character worth admiring, I would think.
Speaking of Oogie Boogie, Ken Page brings to a table a palpable groove to his portrayal as the living sack of worms that haunts Halloween Town. The song Oogie Boogie’s Song is my favorite in the film. It’s catchy. It tells you more about the character than the film could without it and it makes an otherwise underdeveloped character likable faster than the time it would take to carve a pumpkin.
On the note, the music greatly contributes to the ambiance of the film’s dark fantasy elements – a sort of cross between festive and haunting. While certainly not Elfman’s best work, the songs are iconic enough to be recognized as inherently Elfman… Burtonesque Elfman, even. And that’s not bad considering that the man has over a hundred musical film credits. Roughly a dozen of those are from working with Burton alone.
Speaking of Burton, you would be forgiven to think that The Nightmare Before Christmas was directed by the undying vampire himself. The film perfectly captures the director’s knack for the emulsification of the macabre and the fantastical. Even visually, the characters look undeniably similar to those from The Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012). But while Burton was not standing at the helm of the project because he wouldn’t be bothered to put in the work of stop-motion at the time, the director did craft the film’s initial inspiration. And the director’s gruesome yet captivating imagination is as in full display here as it is in any of the films that he personally directs.
In spite of its dated animation, The Nightmare Before Christmas is still considered to be holiday must-watch. For good reason, too. The world alone is filled with unique and instantly memorable characters who’ll leave you curious and completely immersed in equal parts horror and wonder; brought to life by its hauntingly festive music and the grotesquely interesting imagination of Tim Burton.