Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is bored with doing the same thing every year for Halloween. One day he stumbles into Christmas Town, and is so taken with the idea of Christmas that he tries to get the resident bats, ghouls, and goblins of Halloween town to help him put on Christmas instead of Halloween -- but alas, they can't get it quite right.
OSCAR nominee for Best Visual Effects
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The first feature-length stop-motion film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” was a breakthrough when it was first released. Since then, it has been followed by other successful movies using the stop-motion technique, such as “Corpse Bride” and “Coraline.” With newer technology on their side, these more recent films feature even smoother, more lifelike movements than those in “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” However, even if its animation is not quite as advanced as the films that followed it, “Nightmare” still stands out with its meaningful story, memorable characters and gorgeous music.
Based on Tim Burton’s book, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” tells the story of Jack Skellington, the adored king of Halloweentown. But Jack has grown tired of frightening people, and thinks there must be something better than spending all year planning the next All Hallow’s Eve. When Jack accidentally stumbles upon a jolly new holiday, he decides to replace this “Sandy Claws” fellow and run things himself. Unfortunately, the world may not be ready for Jack’s brand of Christmas cheer…
Burton’s story is obviously an homage to Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” but the two stories are very different. True, they both revolve around the idea of hijacking Christmas, but unlike the Grinch, Jack Skellington is a gentle soul from the get-go. He doesn’t want to ruin Christmas; he just wants to become part of something that has made him feel alive again. The tragedy is that he nearly winds up destroying it – and himself – in the process. Burton takes Seuss’ classic tale and twists it, changing a tale of redemption into one of longing. ”
With the current popularity of CGI, stop-motion animation is an overlooked technique. To be sure, it is more time-consuming and less fluid than computer animation, but that doesn’t necessarily make it inferior. In fact, there is a whole different level of care and artistry that goes into stop-motion animation. Basically, when you have to move a puppet’s arm in twenty-four tiny increments just to equal one second of footage in a ninety-minute film, there just isn’t room for shortcuts. There is devotion in every frame of this remarkable film, and it all amounts to a visually enthralling experience.
While it is certainly possible to connect with computer-animated characters – as Pixar has shown time and time again – there is something to be said for the use of puppets. These complex models, built around flexible steel armatures and fitted with a range of expressive faces, have a presence to which pixels cannot compare. Although there’s a bit of jerkiness to the characters’ movements, that just reminds us that they’re physically there. It doesn’t take long before we buy the creatures of “Nightmare” as living, breathing beings – and considering our hero is a skeleton, that’s really saying something.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a twist on the Disney musicals of the 90’s, with ten songs provided by composer and former Oingo Boingo front man Danny Elfman. These songs, with their clever lyrics and hummable tunes, perfectly capture the overall tone of the film: a brilliant balance between exuberance and melancholy. Elfman even sings the part of Jack Skellington, and his beautiful voice should be a pleasant surprise for those unaware of it. The score is just as fitting as the songs. By turns exhilarating and brooding, it keeps the storybook atmosphere alive.
The voice acting in “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is marvelous all around. Catherine O’Hara takes on two roles, playing the wistful heroine Sally and the scheming witch-girl Shock. There are other Burton regulars in the cast: Beetlejuice’s Glenn Shadix plays the very literally two-faced mayor of Halloweentown, while Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee Herman) lends his familiar voice to puckish trick-or-treater Lock. As the speaking voice of Jack Skellington, Chris Sarandon really doesn’t get enough credit. Although it’s a real treat to hear Danny Elfman sing Jack’s songs, most of the character’s real warmth and nobility comes from Sarandon’s thoroughly likable take on the character. Rounding out the cast are Broadway’s Ken Page as the villainous Oogie Boogie and Edward Ivory as an understandably incensed Santa Claus.
The design of this film remains very faithful to the illustrations in Tim Burton’s book, down to the stunning Spiral Hill. The dreary, angular Halloweentown is, as others have noted, a wonderful nod to the dreamlike landscapes of German expressionism. By contrast, with its rounded shapes and bright colours, Christmastown is the perfect glittering confection to chase Jack’s gloom away. Our hero’s first glimpse of it is ours as well, and after the shadows of Halloweentown, this new world is truly dazzling. Yet, by the end of the film, it’s interesting to note how much more appealing Jack’s hometown really is. Although not nearly as colourful as Christmastown, Halloweentown’s residents have cheer to spare, and frankly, it just looks like a more interesting place to live. The brighter world proves a good place to visit, but the enchantment doesn’t last forever. Jack eventually realizes to which world he truly belongs, and it makes sense when he returns to his old home.
What makes this film so powerful is that it can appeal to kids and adults alike. While classified as a “children’s film,” the plot and characters still resonate profoundly with mature viewers. At the heart of all the spookiness lies a very human problem: Jack Skellington is questioning his purpose in life. After years of admiration and success, he can no longer remember what made him love his job in the first place. He craves something new to inspire him, and when he finds it, he thinks his problems are solved. Yet although he’s excited at the novelty of his new discovery, it still can’t truly fulfill him. These are concepts that become all the more meaningful with time, so although kids understand this film, the core issues have an even deeper impact on the adults in the audience.
Sixteen years after its release, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” has acquired a kind of cult status. In 2006, just in time for Halloween, it received a 3-D upgrade for a brief theatrical re-release, which has since become an almost annual deal. From more recent cameos in the “Kingdom Hearts” video games to his constant presence in “Hot Topic,” it seems Jack Skellington’s popularity has only increased. His quest for a purpose still inspires old and new fans alike, guiding them through a rewarding journey of discovery. And in “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” there is so much to see and hear along the way.
As a side note: Contrary to popular belief, Henry Selick directed “Nightmare,” not Tim Burton. One of the most frustrating things about this misconception is that advertisers use it to their advantage. Some of Selick’s subsequent films, such as “Monkeybone” and the superb “Coraline,” are credited in ads to “the director of ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’” Given the title “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” the confusion is understandable. However, because of the general belief that Burton directed “Nightmare,” Selick sometimes seems to miss out on the recognition he deserves. He is a highly imaginative filmmaker in his own right, and it would be a shame to overlook him because of some tricky advertising.