“The Nightmare Before Christmas”

August 29, 2008

Although it has been more than a decade since its theatrical release, there are still ads on television for the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). As the name implies, its about the monsters of Halloween. Their leader, Jack Skellington, tries to hijack Santa’s holiday. Naturally, chaos ensues. It is an animated dark fantasy/musical film known thoughout the world for its radical and striking appearance, and a sound track that is both haunting and enchanting. It was also a stop-motion claymation movie, which is always fun. Unfortunately, it seems that its unique qualities scared off some viewers, particularly parents. Is it still worth watching any more? Is it outdated?

Well, we cannot off-handedly dismiss it as outdated, because Corpse Bride (2005) was so successful. The Nightmare Before Christmas was also re-released a couple years ago in theaters, so surely at least someone thinks it is worth seeing. And why not? The fimmakers behind it managed to integrate german expressionism, claymation, and the musical genre and got it to sell. There’s something to be said for presenting something new and different, even if its really just a combination of things that have been around a while.

Although this movie is a musical, I believe that few would deny that the visuals are its strongest asset. Tim Burton has an artist touch to his movies that viewers either love or hate. His setting and characters tend to look like they came from a gloomy children’s book (mind you, Tim Burton didn’t actually direct this film, but he did produce it).

 This film was also HEAVILY influenced by the 1920’s European art movement called German Expressionism. The creatures and objects are all distorted and have skewed, nightmarish angles. The mayor and Jack even looks like Dr. Calgari and Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari (1920), a prominent film of that trend. Nothing is made to look realistic, and why should it? Seriously, we’re talking about a cartoon. The stop-motion animation also remininscent of the older Christmas movies like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), but with a strange otherworldly twist. Being inspired by other movies is always a good thing, but I was a little turned off when I noticed how alike Jack Skellington was to Jack Pumkinhead from Return to Oz. In fact, he wears a Pumkinhead costume in the opening sequence.

The drawback to stop-motion is that by the 1993, it was a bit archaic and primitive (keep in mind that Jurrassic Park came out the same year).  Every once in a while there is a distracting flaw, such as visible wires and such. Regardless, the cinematographer and the crew clearly were masters of the visual language. Every transition is flawless or damn close, and the characters are beautifully photographed. This is the only musical I have ever seen where the viewer can turn off the volume, and still know what’s going on. That is truly a sign of great filmmaking, as film is a primarily visual medium. Of course, as a musical, it would be nothing without great music, wouldn’t it?

Who could be a more appropiate choice for this film’s music than Danny Elfman? The man has produced some of the best movie music for decades, and the music for the the Nightmare Before Christmas may be his best work. He even sang some parts. All of the songs are memorable- perhaps excessively so. I had the saddest song stuck in my head for days.

The plot isn’t as impressive, however. Jack decides to take a break from Halloween and try Christmas, but does so carelessly and without asking Santa Claus. His admirer knows its a bad idea, but Jack is oblivious. He has Santa captured, and takes over the fat man’s job, and obviously discovers he isn’t too great at it. There is also a boogieman with a gambling addiction that tries to eat Santa. Its a simple, predictable story. The magic of the actual storytelling compensates for this wonderfully, but the boogieman villian could have been fleshed out much more. He is interesting, but his role is so small it is almost unneccessary.

Overall the movie is very gloomy, and it’s easy to see why the emo and goth crowds identify with it so much. The freaky monsters fail to find their place in the outside world. Jack’s admirer and romantic interest, Sally, feels perpetually overlooked (guess who sang that depressing song). It is easy to see the film as a tragedy, promoting conformity within one’s own group. In this case, the monsters would stay with Halloween. I would challenge that. In the end, Jack and his admirer get what they really wanted in the end. Even so, the movie is still pretty dark. Some of the characters might creep out kids too, but then again some kids were scared of the California Raisins.

This is a must see for Tim Burton fans and Halloween fanatics. That’s a given. For everyone else, it depends on where you stand with musicals, or strange characters. Just don’t dismiss this as a mere children’s film, because young adults tend to be most attracted to this film. I recommend it, especially if you have Netflix.

8.5 out 10.0

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2 Responses to ““The Nightmare Before Christmas””

  1. Jane Says:

    Perhaps I need to start netflixing German Expressionist films, because I have always considered Nightmare Before Christmas a classic. I’ve always been a huge Tim Burton fan and this was a favorite for quite a while. In fact, I still have the movie, and still watch it from time to time. When it was re-released in theaters, it was the 10 year anniversary of the movie. Jack, the Pumpkin King (hence the pumpkin outfit) is sick of doing the same thing every year and longs for something new and different and exciting, and when he finds it in Christmas, he longs to emulate the warmth and merriment with the people of Halloweentown…however they just don’t get it, and he doesn’t know how to really explain it to them…which is how things go awry. As far as it being too scary for children, I taught some kids that said they watched horror movies, so there’s something for everyone I guess.

    Did you like the movie? Perhaps you should go back and watch other Tim Burton films you haven’t seen in a while. Vincent Price had a role in Edward Scissorhands. Holy guacamole! I just looked him up on IMDB and he’s doing Alice in Wonderland in 2010!!!

  2. Alex Says:

    Look! You made it to the top of Google’s results for "retroglory wordpress!"


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