Classic Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  Tim Burton’s magnum opus, with all of his shocks, laughs, and, most importantly, heart.

Review: Tim Burton may be the most stylistic filmmaker of our time. His films are dark, twisted, strangely humorous, and, when done well, carry tremendous dramatic and emotional weight. Burton peaked twice in the early 90’s with two films that captured his style’s essence. The first was the live-action ‘Edward Scissorhands’ in 1990. The second was the stop-motion animated ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ in 1993. And while they both contend for his best work, I think Nightmare just manages to edge out.

Ironically, though this may be his best film, Burton didn’t actually direct on it. That honor went to Henry Selick, a director who specializes in these kind stop-motion films. His other credits include ‘James and the Giant Peace’ and the recent ‘Coraline’. Burton did serve as a co-writer and co-producer, however, as well as providing the original idea; and this film certainly screams of Burton aesthetic and influence.

This is a holiday film and, as Burton described it, is something of the reverse of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’. Instead of someone trying to ‘steal’ Christmas, this movie tells the story of someone who finds it. Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, is the leader of Halloween Town, and, of all the ghouls who live there, he is the most frightening. Recently though, he has begun to tire of Halloween; it no longer feels exciting or fresh to him, and he’s secretly depressed. That is until one day when he accidentally stumbles into Christmas Town and discovers its titular celebration. He is overtaken by the wonder and joy of this new holiday and quickly embraces it as the perfect beautiful replacement for his old one. The only problem is that he gets carried away: he not only wants to celebrate it; he wants to run it. He wants to be in charge of it, as opposed to Santa Clause. Unfortunately for him, he finds Halloween-past and Christmas don’t mix easy.

It’s a story that has a lot of heart to it, and it’s told incredibly well. Jack’s tale is an introspective and meaningful account of someone’s quest to find happiness and meaning; and it also serves as a larger commentary on the Holiday culture in general. In the Western world, there’s a lot of build-up to holidays, but it’s common that the day itself and the time immediately afterword can be something of a let down. The theme of this movie seems to be that even though Holidays are important, it’s foolish to wait till the actual days or “Holiday Seasons” themselves to start celebrating the thoughts, ideas, and emotions they’re about, and it’s equally foolish to stop celebrating once the holiday is over. We need to always be mindful of what we’re thankful for, at some level always celebrating the things we have that give us joy. If we do that, then holidays will never be a let down. As my mother used to say, “It’s Christmas everyday in our hearts.”

As I said earlier, this film is entirely stop-motion animated, and it’s incredibly well done. All of the models and sets are very elaborate and have the trademark Burton/gothic feel to them. The choreography and movement that they pull off, especially during the musical numbers, is wonderfully graceful, no doubt thanks to Selick’s skilled direction. As a musical, it features very memorable work by Danny Elfman, with such impressive songs as “What’s This?” and “This is Halloween” buffering an outstanding score.

Burton’s made good and bad movies over his career, but when he hits something profound, he’s always dead on. ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a beautifully crafted, excellently executed work and his true masterpiece. It’s both visually stunning and provocative, and it makes for wonderful story telling. There are few animated films, or holiday films for that matter, better than this. For Halloween or Christmas or anytime really, it’s more than worth a watch.

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