- Director: Henry Selick
- Writers: Adaptation by Michael McDowell, Screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on a Story and Characters by Tim Burton, with Music and Lyrics by Danny Elfman
- Starring: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page, Ed Ivory, Paul Reubens, and Frank Welker
- Accolades: 1 Oscar nomination (Best Visual Effects)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Disney Plus, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV.
Welcome to the first of what I’m hoping will be an annual tradition here at Movie Valhalla, our Holiday Virtual Film Festival. We’ll be watching holiday-themed movies (some of the themes are more tenuous than others) over the next ten days, and we hope that you’ll be able to watch at least some of them along with us. We may not be able to return to movie theaters quite yet, but hopefully you can get some semblance of watching a movie along with friends through our site, or our Facebook page. We know the holidays are a time for family, and that many of us aren’t getting to see our families as much as we’d like this year. So if we can at least bring you a little distraction, then I’ll consider that a job done.
I think it might be helpful, particularly for today’s movie, to get a little bit of a sense of my personal relationship to the holiday season. I grew up in a house where Christmas was a really big deal. My mother collects Christmas ornaments, and there are trees to show them off in almost every room of my parents’ house this time of year. She also collects a specific brand of artisanal Italian manger figures, and the manger scene now stretches over the length of a long table. My sister and I annually received, well beyond our childhood years, larger piles of presents than my parents could probably afford. Even this year, they mailed me at least one present wrapped in plain red paper, to signify that it came from Santa.
The point is, Christmas had a significance in my life beyond the inherent role it might play for everybody, and like anything that takes on a role like that, it comes with baggage too. And as I’ve gone on and lived my life, I’ve married my wonderful Jewish spouse and we now primarily celebrate Hanukkah in our house. It’s not a Christmas-free zone (we still watch Christmas movies every year, for one thing), but it gives one a certain distance from the holiday season that I definitely never had as a kid. My parents, by the way, are trying their best. Despite our not being able to make it to their house for Christmas, they still sent their usual too many presents, it’s just that most of them are wrapped in blue and white paper.
The upshot of all this when it comes to The Nightmare Before Christmas is that I came to it as an adult, despite it being released when I was nine years old. I think my mother in particular, as someone for whom Christmas was a really big deal, was not up for a movie about Christmas being, for all intents and purposes, desecrated by Halloween. This was not the case for many of my friends today, including my wife, who sang along to many of the songs when we watched it this year. I have more than one other friend with Nightmare tattoos. It is an absolutely amazing achievement that seems to perfectly capture the imaginations of a large segment of the population. Visually, it’s completely unique, even in the relatively small universe of stop-motion animation. Musically, it’s pretty much perfect, definitely the greatest achievement of composer/new wave rock star Danny Elfman’s career. There aren’t that many movies I’m willing to watch over and over, but this is one of them.
For those who have not yet been introduced to it, The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop-motion animated musical about Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, singing by Elfman), the “King of Halloween,” who after several centuries is experiencing his own kind of mid-life crisis. Sure, he’s the best at scaring people, and everyone in “Halloween Town” loves him, but what’s the point of any of it? Then he accidentally wanders somewhere he’s never been before, “Christmas Town,” and immediately becomes obsessed with Christmas. Before long, he’s decided that the denizens of Halloween Town should take over Christmas this year, a plot that involves kidnapping “Sandy Claws” (Ed Ivory) and getting the mad scientist Doctor Finklestein (William Hickey) to engineer him skeleton reindeer. This plan, as one might suspect, ends in total disaster, but in the process Jack reinvigorates his love of Halloween, saves Santa from the even evil-er clutches of “Oogie Boogie” (aka “The Boogie Man,” voiced by Broadway vet Ken Page), and gets the girl, Sally (a stitched-together creation of Dr. Finklestein voiced by the great Catherine O’Hara).
The movie is widely credited to, and was originally the brainchild of, Tim Burton, who actually came up with the concept while he was an animator at Disney. They didn’t like his ideas, however, thinking them a bit too weird for their usual audience, and ended up firing him. This turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him, as it freed him up to direct Beetlejuice and the 1989 Batman. Now that Burton was a big star, Disney agreed to make The Nightmare Before Christmas, but Burton was very busy (and also didn’t really know how to do stop-motion animation) and handed off work on the movie to a team led by stop-motion specialist Henry Selick. Apparently Burton maybe visited the San Francisco set four or five times max during shooting, but he gets most of the credit these days, given that Disney originally marketed the movie as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Certainly the designs were heavily inspired by Burton’s aesthetic.
At least as much credit for the movie’s success should probably be given to Elfman, who wrote all the music and also provides Jack’s singing voice. The movie packs ten of his songs into slightly under 80 minutes (with credits), which if you do the math means they’re basically singing the whole time, with some stray lines in between. Yet it’s not as if the movie suffers from a paucity of plot, instead doing an admirable job of often telling the story through the songs. For those unfamiliar with Elfman, he first gained prominence as lead singer of the rock band Oingo Bongo, eventually transitioning to a long career as a film score composer that has included four Oscar nominations, though surprisingly not for this movie.
This is a movie that wears its influences on its sleeve, but it has about twelve bazillion of them, and it makes them into something entirely unique. There are dashes in there of Ray Harryhausen, Edward Gorey, Francis Bacon, Dr. Seuss, Rankin-Bass Christmas Specials, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, even pop-up children’s books. Elfman has said that it was the easiest composing job he ever took, because he had a lot in common with Jack Skellington. So are a lot of us, I think, yet he’s also the sort of character who can believably rise out of a pool of slime while the town sings his praises. Maybe a lot of us are like that, I don’t know.
For all of its playful “darkness,” The Nightmare Before Christmas plays it straight from an emotional perspective. It doesn’t shy away from a dramatic composition, as in that beautiful image from the poster of Jack standing on the hill with that weird, spirally top, framed by a huge yellow moon. One later song is sung by Jack while dramatically draped in the arms of a large angel monument in a cemetery. I can’t necessarily speak for my friends with Nightmare tattoos, but I think that this movie is so beloved partly because it provokes the same deep emotions as a hit romance, but for a very different group of people.