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 Is it outdated?

Well, we cannot off-handedly dismiss it as outdated, because Corpse Bride (2005) was so successful.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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Since we are talking older films, I think I’ll start with the ones I remember as a kid.  No, not the Disney sappy cartoon movies.  I’m talking about the darker fairytale movies that arose in the 1980’s and early 90’s, most of which were either forgotten or forever idolized as cult hits.

Certain titles immediately come to mind; Labrynth (1986), the Dark Crystal (1982), the Secret of NIMH (1982) and of course, the Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).  There were tons of others as well, and all of them loosely shared a mystical and sometimes haunting aura that directly challenged the model used by Disney.  Ironically, Disney tried to capitalize on the dark fantasy movement, but only had one extrordinary success.

There is little question as to the visual esthetic and mastery of puppeteering that complemented some of these films. After all, these are the masterpieces of Jim Hensen and Tim Burton. Don Bluth even managed to give Disney a little competition in the animation field.  One even features David Bowie in excessively tight pants.

But looking back, were these films all that dark? Sometimes they were. Consider the film Return to Oz (1985):

It starts off with Dorothy being taken to a shrink who wants to subject her to electro-shock therapy to cure her “obsession” with Oz.  After Dorothy narrowly escapes down a river, she finds herself in a post-apocalypse version of Oz, where the buildings are in ruins and the people turn to stone (and therefore, dead). The land is terrorized by insane mostrosities and ruled by an evil  old queen, who cuts off pretty young women’s heads so she can wear them. 

Wow. Now thats different.

Obviously, not all of these movies were so extreme, and even Return to Oz had a happy ending. Movies like these generally were intended for somewhat older audiences, hence the PG ratings.  What you have to understand is that “fairy” tales weren’t always cheery Disney stories. These films harken back to the old days when children were told “faerie” tales to scare them so they wouldn’t wander into the woods. 

Faeries used to be conceived as fallen angles that Didn’t quite make it to hell. They generally weren’t good or evil, but they were chaotic and not to be trusted. They could be beautiful winged women, or goblins and trolls that dwelled under bridges. Alot of these stories have sad endings and sometimes involve small children being stolen. Although these movies don’t go that far, they do tend to blur the lines between black and white. Inevitably, mainstream audiences became uncomfortable with this style, and opted for traditional Hollywood movies.

Why talk about all this? Tommorrow, I will do my review of the Nightmare Before Christmas.I haven’t seen it in nearly a decade and I am a fan of the German Expressionist aesthetic. Seeing as how this is the first review, why not give it and its predecessors a proper introduction