Monday, October 31, 2022

The Nightmare Before Christmas

Note: This review contains spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas.

If you’ve been to Disneyland, looked at Disney’s Halloween offerings or even stepped foot in a Hot Topic in the last several years, chances are you’ve at least heard of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Originally released in 1993 under Disney’s Touchstone label, the film remains one of Tim Burton’s best-known works, though Henry Selick (Coraline) was the actual director due to Burton being too busy with Batman Returns at the time. Though it initially underperformed on release, in the nearly 30 years since, the film has become a Halloween cult classic, to the point where Disney has since moved it under their own label and increased its presence at Disney parks, including an annual crossover event with the Haunted Mansion ride known as Haunted Mansion Holiday. Having grown up with the film and looking back on it now, it’s not hard to see how it managed to attain such a following.

Following the celebration of Halloween in Halloween Town (“This Is Halloween”), the holiday’s leader Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon (speaking); Danny Elfman (singing)) has grown tired of the annual tradition, finding it to have grown stale, and wants something new in his life (“Jack’s Lament”). On a walk through the forest with his ghost dog Zero (Frank Welker), Jack wanders into an unfamiliar clearing with doors leading to other holiday towns and finds himself drawn to one shaped like a Christmas tree. Upon landing in Christmas Town and finding himself enamored by the holiday (“What’s This?”), Jack wants to know more and gets the idea to celebrate Christmas instead of Halloween.

Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon (speaking); Danny Elfman (singing))
finds himself in Christmas Town.

One thing that can be said about the movie is that it has a very unique plot, one that is fortunately executed very well. The holiday towns, particularly for Halloween and Christmas, are explored just enough to sell the premise, helped by some consistent internal logic, and there is a very clear through line with Jack’s character development. The character of Sally (Catherine O’Hara) has her own storyline sharing parallels with Jack’s story, where her creator Doctor Finklestein (William Hickey) wants to keep her locked up but she keeps finding ways to leave the castle and explore. Because of this, the relationship between Jack and Sally, while not at the forefront, is still present enough to be believable.

Fitting in with the macabre setting of Halloween Town, while the movie does have a more serious tone overall, there’s occasional moments of dark humor that provide some levity. These instances, however, are more often visual and make creative use of the setting without going overboard or relying on dialogue puns. One particularly humorous sequence comes from Jack trying to scientifically reverse-engineer Christmas, though I won’t go into too much detail there.

The stop motion animation holds up surprisingly well, though there is some minor jankiness by today’s standards, such as movements not being entirely smooth and the occasional moments of obvious trickery such as visible strings on the bats in the opening musical number. That being said, there are far more things about the animation that continue to impress even today. Zero is convincingly portrayed as a ghost thanks to some amazing special effects and coordination, Oogie Boogie’s lair has some great set design with a consistent gambling theme and a musical sequence (“Oogie Boogie’s Song”) with impressive blacklight effects and there are a number of impressive shots, particularly in the third act, that really make you wonder how they managed to pull off certain angles, as well as one shot in Oogie’s lair where there is an extreme close-up on him while Jack can be seen entering from the background.

The "Oogie Boogie's Song" sequence has great blacklight effects.
From left: Santa Claus (Ed Ivory), Oogie Boogie (Ken Page)

Some other shots show how much the animators went the extra mile when they didn’t really need to, to great results. One stand-out moment in the third act, after Jack’s Santa costume is shredded, has every tear in the fabric being individually and realistically tracked while he dances around the cemetery he landed in (“Poor Jack”). Traditional animation is used as well where stop-motion would not work, such as the ghosts that haunt Halloween Town, while blending seamlessly with the stop motion.

This being a musical, it’s important that the songs be good, and fortunately it delivers in spades. Every song, written and composed by Danny Elfman of Oingo Boingo fame, is highly memorable and listenable out of context, likely as a result of the songs being written before the script and elements of some songs working their way into the score as leitmotifs. That said, some songs still stand out more than others and can become potential ear worms, in particular “This Is Halloween”, “What’s This?”, “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” and “Making Christmas”, among others.

The songs are helped by a great voice cast, many of whom also have good singing talents as well. Elfman himself provides Jack Skellington’s singing voice and displays some amazing skills, though Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride, Child’s Play) is the perfect match for Jack’s speaking voice. On the subject of perfect matches, Ken Page brings his stage experience to the role Oogie Boogie, showing his singing capabilities in the bombastic “Oogie Boogie’s Song” and giving the character the right presence to make him a legitimate threat. Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice, Home Alone) shows a good amount of range as well, playing both the soft-spoken Sally and the trickster Shock, alongside whom Elfman and Paul Reubens (of Pee-wee Herman fame) show range as Barrel and Lock respectively.

As with a number of other Disney properties, The Nightmare Before Christmas has gained wider recognition through its representation in the Kingdom Hearts franchise, appearing as a world in the original Kingdom Hearts, Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days and II. Though Tim Burton being protective of the IP has prevented any film sequels from being made, a few sequels have been presented in other mediums, including in print form with the manga Zero’s Journey by Kei Ishiyama and most recently with the novel Long Live the Pumpkin Queen by Shea Ernshaw. The film has also received a video game sequel subtitled Oogie’s Revenge, notable for Capcom being the developer as well as its connections to the Devil May Cry series.

An unofficial entry in the Devil May Cry series.

Nearly 30 years later, The Nightmare Before Christmas has earned its legacy as a Halloween classic. If you have not seen the movie before and are looking for a more unique Halloween story, and/or are a fan of Tim Burton or Henry Selick’s work, I would highly recommend giving this movie a try. That said, some of the visuals and the lyrical themes of some songs can be a little intense for younger viewers.

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