Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is not technically Tim Burton's. He produced the film and conceived it, but it was, in fact, written by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and directed by Henry Selick (who later helmed the bizarre but unjustly hated Monkeybone). Still, you feel Burton in every single frame. As audiences eagerly await Burton's Sweeney Todd, I thought this would be an ideal time to look back at his previous stab at the musical genre.
The story of Nightmare is a simple one. Jack Skellington (voiced by Prince Humperdinck himself -- Chris Sarandon, with composer Danny Elfman handling singing duties) is the "Pumpkin King" of Halloweentown, but he has become bored in the role. He literally stumbles into a place called Christmas Town, loves what he sees, and decides to hijack the holiday. Skellington even (in the film's funniest segment) takes over the gift delivery duties for Santa Claus ("Sandy Claws"). And of course, there's a not entirely necessary love interest -- Sally, voiced by an unrecognizable Catherine O'Hara.
Speaking of Elfman, the scores he has written for Tim Burton's films are some of the most memorable in modern film. Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman/Batman Returns, and Edward Scissorhands wouldn't have been nearly as wonderful without Elfman's glorious music. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the music of Elfman is front and center, and his songs -- whose staccato rhythms and mixture of singing and speaking certainly owe a debt to Sweeney Todd composer Stephen Sondheim -- suit the film perfectly. The catchiest of Elfman's tunes is "What's This?" It's the kind of song you'll find yourself singing days later, during the most mundane of activities. Just this morning, I walked into the bathroom singing "What's this, what's this? My toothbrush on the sink! What's this, what's this? I'll brush my teeth I think!" Thank God I live alone.
Nightmare looks and feels a lot like the old Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, etc). Those classics used stop-motion technology, were often surprisingly dark, and were clearly an influence. On the DVD documentary, Burton discusses his childhood love of those holiday stories. He considers Nightmare the reverse of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Jack wants to "steal" Christmas too, but out of love, not hate. I couldn't help but think while watching the film this time around that Nightmare might have worked even better as an hour-long holiday special. Even at 75 minutes, it's a bit padded and there's a song or two that could have been cut...
But it's really hard to find quibbles with a movie this visually spectacular. This film takes us to a whole new world, and I can still remember the constant, stunned gasps of the audience when I first saw this in the theater back in 1993. Selick describes the film's look as "German expressionist combined with Dr. Seuss," and that's about right. There's something cool to see in every corner of the screen, at any given moment. Every frame of the movie could be a painting hanging on a wall. It's a genuine work of art. The characters, though pretty underdeveloped emotionally, are beautifully designed -- with my favorite moment being the disgusting glimpse under Oogie Boogie's cloak. So much work goes into bringing this style of animation to life -- 24 individual puppet movements for each second of film -- and every bit of passion and care is up on the screen.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was successful but hardly a box office smash, especially by lucrative animation standards. It pulled in just $50 million in its original release. But the film has become a minor holiday classic, and has a sizable following of obsessed fans, particularly in the "Goth" community. When I saw the 3-D version last month, the theater was packed with children, ensuring that future generations of teenagers will look at the holiday season with a dark, gloomy, mischievous eye. And that's a very good thing.