On the Ninth Day of Christmas… “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

[...Day 9 of the 12 Days of Christmas review project...]

Director: Henry Selick
Writers: Tim Burton
Producers: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi, Don Hahn
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 76 min
Year of Release: 1993

Keep in mind the fact that through these past nine days of Christmas film viewing, not a one had I seen previously. So is also true with today’s lesson in how to make a great film. Taught by director Henry Selick and writer producer Tim Burton. Fully expecting for this film to be just so-so, I was enamored from start to finish with the richness in detail, storytelling, characters and most surprisingly the music.

The movie starts off with a bunch of ghouls and ghosts and other frights of the macabre all singing and dancing about the joys of Halloween. When the celebration is over, the organizer of the successful event, Jack Skellington, feel somehow empty inside; like there should be something more. Later, while exploring through the woods, Jack finds himself presented with some mysterious doors in the forest. For the audience, these are obviously marked to represent different holidays. Jack finds himself leaving Halloween land and entering Christmas world where he finds a whole slew of new, interesting, bright, joyous and fascinating ideas and wonders. He then takes it upon himself to bring the idea of Christmas back with him to Halloween land where no one can quite understand or even comprehend the idea of cheeriness as fun.

What got me right off the bat (within just the opening minutes) was the unique look to this strange land. Obviously the creatures are odd and the stop motion look of everything is different that most any other films released today, but what struck me was the meticulousness to which everything was paid; particularly the lighting. What makes the land of Halloween and Christmas work so well is the different methods of lighting the scenes. Whether it be from a strange green light from a mysterious cauldron, the yellow/orange (even black) hues and color blends of the moon, to the straight up use of a spotlight aimlessly wandering through the picture. Everything is gorgeous.

This gorgeousness can also be attributed to the strange and wonderful creatures Burton has come up with. Every known creature of the night and frights (spiders, snakes, vampires, ghosts, skeletons, witches and even clowns!) come alive with so much expression and amazement that it was hard not to actually pause the DVD at times just to get a longer glimpse. Of course there are odd, unknown creatures utilized as well. Ones that although charming, would certainly have scared the pants off of me as a young child. So yeah, while this is a kids movie, I would certainly recommend keeping the younger ones away until they are able to handle a little bit more scarier elements. Think “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” on acid.

And speaking of everyone’s childhood favorite’s, the animated “How The Grinch Stole Christmas”, one can’t help but make some more “Seussian” comparisons with The Nightmare Before Christmas – even down to the songs. Yes, The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually a musical. And while I normally am turned off by the musical numbers in children’s films, I found myself quite enjoying these songs. Musically they aren’t particularly memorable, but the lyrics and fun and bouncy; not to mention extremely creative. I was hinged to every word.

Again, the look of the movie is what steals the show here. Even beyond the aforementioned lighting, the use of differing techniques in animation is obvious but not distracting. The use of stop-motion animation (or what appears to be anyway) coupled together with a little bit of CGI and even a delightful sprinkle of standard, hand drawn animation to spice things up just where it needs to be is absolutely dynamite (actually, I wish there had been a little bit more of the traditional animation). The attention to detail is amazing and the amount of time and effort that must have gone in to this production is unfathomable.

So the question stands, is this a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? If a gun as put to my head I think it tries to capture the spirit of Christmas and a viewing seems better fit in this last month of the year. Having said that, it’s no wonder that for the past few years it has been released in limited screenings around the country during October as well. It fits both seasons perfectly and while I did see it on the big screen this weekend, I can’t wait to get get a glimpse of the 3-D version that plays at the IMAX next Halloween. Only 270 days and counting!

While it may be cliche to say, this is truly great entertainment and fun for the whole family. While mainly a kids movie, some of the humor and visual are aimed squarely at adults. Though again, this is most certainly NOT for the little ones. When most people talk about great achievements in children’s animation, Pixar studio is immediately what springs to most people’s minds. While this is a Disney film, Pixar’s logo is nowhere to be found and it’s quite refreshing to see something that is this visually unique and stunning coming from someone other than those Toy Story guys. And maybe most fascinating of all, is that this film is over 15 years old! If I didn’t know better, I wouldn’t have any reservations about believing this film to be released in 2008. Wondrous!

Andrew James
Podcaster. Tech junkie. Movie lover. Student. Also, beer.

22 Comments

  1. Am I the ONLY person who doesn't like this movie? I'll take Beetlejuice or Big Fish over it any day of the week.

    (Btw – TIM BURTON DIDN'T DIRECT THIS? HOLY CRAP!)

    Good review, though, Andrew.

    Reply
  2. Hey Ross,

    I too was SHOCKED when I saw this Selick guy as the director.

    But hey, I like Beetlejuice and Big Fish a lot too. Maybe I was just so surprised at how much I liked this. Low expectations sometimes make a film a lot better than it is.

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  3. Yum. Yum. Yum. I want my Coraline. This one is a favourite of mine, and I'm a slave to any of Selick's work. Also see the nice short film done by his assistant (Paul Berry), in the same style but a much, much, much darker tone:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UjgHbRrnjhU

    (embedding was disabled by poster, but I'm glad this think exists on the web. I was hunting for it for nigh on a decade before finally someone put it on YouTube.

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  4. "I’ll take Beetlejuice or Big Fish over it any day of the week."

    Big Fish has all the sentiment of Forrest Gump without any of the story. Big Fish is my least favorite Tim Burton movie, easily.

    And that includes Planet of the Apes.

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  5. Also not a fan of Big Fish, (Gumpisms and a general sloppy storytelling style (which is funny because it is a movie about storytelling)). The word 'treacly' comes to mind.

    But oi. oi. oi. Planet of the Apes is a doozy of an example of HOW NOT TO DO A REMAKE! (Oddly, I have a soft spot for Burton's Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, and the 'dark mirror' of that film, SWEENEY TODD.)

    The sad part about both PotA and BF is that they both have excellent casts that just sort of flounder in the middle-of-the-road execution of each of those films.

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  6. As bad as "Apes" is, and even though its a worse movie, to me its Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that is the bigger abortion of a remake.

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  7. They're both awful. Aside from Giamatti and Tim Roth's EXCELLENT performance, Apes is shit. It almost worth watching though just for Roth.

    Not sure what the problem is with Big Fish though. Can anyone say cold hearts in the third row? It's touching and original. I like fish stories (Paul Bunyan, Rip Van Winkle, etc). Burton does it well here. I don't see any reference to Gump here at all.

    There is nothing historical and it's just one man's way of making his life sound more interesting. Also, anyone who has a father should be touched by this. GREAT characters, fun dialogue and a heartwarming story that rings true (which is funny, considering). No, I see no problems with Big Fish and think it's a 4.5/5 star film. Then again, I believe Gump to be one of the best films of the 90's (but we've already had that debate).

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  8. I think Apes is worth watching for the monkeys. Whenever the humans are onscreen it does suck ass. The DVD is definitely worth buying though, the single disc version, because you get two commentary tracks, Tim Burton explaining, borderline apologizing, and Danny Elfman talking his extraordinary music.

    I love Tim Burton though, but I wasn't that excited about Nightmare. Been awhile since I saw it, but I thought the songs were kind of boring, and the story a bit too predictable. Also, the evil presence was typical of an animated movie in that it was slightly comical, and never went full on villain, as far as I remember.

    Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Edward Scissorhands, Batman and Mars Attacks! are awesome movies though.

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  9. Henrik, the songs seem to be the major complaint with other reviews I read. I agree that musically they aren't all that compelling, but the lyrics are great fun. As for the villain thing, it can't get too evil. Remember this is a movie for the whole family to enjoy.

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  10. Maybe "evil" is the wrong term. I think "scary" is what I should've said. You don't want kids running from the theater in tears. Evil and bad is alright, but the characters can't get too scary.

    And anyway, I think your criticism is misplaced. I don't think being evil or bad is the point of the movie. It's supposed to be fun and light hearted. It's like saying Ratatouille is a bad movie because the food critic doesn't go on a killing spree in the restaurant.

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  11. I just think that to keep me interested, there has to be some sort of drama. Otherwise don't have a villainous character.

    Scary to me is a subjective term, but evil is not. I want my villains evil, because I want drama, I want emotion in these animated films.

    "I don’t think being evil or bad is the point of the movie. It’s supposed to be fun and light hearted."

    Sure but it does have a villainous character. So part of the movie is supposed to be evil or bad.

    As for Ratatouille, I definitely think part of the reason the movie sucks is because the one villain is just a bumbling greedy chef that poses no threat to anybody and is just comic relief, and the other villain who is like a force of nature more so than a character, is reduced to a charicature.

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  12. I heart this movie and though Corpse Bride isn't even in the same statosphere, it's still fun. My favourite musical number:

    <center><object width="425" height="344"><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/xpvdAJYvofI&hl=en&fs=1&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object></center>

    And wow, both Panic! At the Disco and Marilyn Manson have covered the tune.

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  13. I actually fell a bit in love the imagination on display in Big Fish. I agree that it FEELS a bit like Forrest Gumop but it's much more enjoyasble in my opinin and it's sans the cotton candy coating in my opinion. On repeat viewings Gump kind of becomes too much to bear with it's sappiness; Gump seems to imitate "cute and likeable" whereas I think Big Fish IS "cute and likeable". And, like Andrew sais, it's a great film about the father-son relationship. It examines a state of relationship I'm sure many of us have had over the years and I love it for that amongst many other things. Yes, I LOVE Big Fish.

    I agree that Planet of the Apes is a terrible remake, I couldn't believe Burton had it in him to make something as bad. Although I agree with you Andrew that it's almost worth watching for Roth alone.

    I think The Nightmare Before Christmas and Planet of the Apes are the only two Burton films I don't like. Charlie, BF, Scissorhands, Beetlejuice (my favourite of his), Sweeney Todd on and on… – all GREAT.

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  14. Oh there is so much Gump in Big Fish. Just as it is in Slumdog, you've got one person telling their whimsical backstory, and then at some point it catches up and they move forward with everyone now in play. The dad in Big Fish cries his Sally Field tears and I throw up.

    Anyways the main reason Big Fish stinks (heh) is because the tall tales are never actually tall enough. They are in fact, rather plain and uninteresting. The feeling watching each segment for me was "thats it?"

    Its kind of like watching the Twilight Zone movie, expecting something cool and fucked up, and then getting Speilberg's segment.

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  15. Henrik reduced Ratatouille to a 'heroes and villains' movie, when it isn't that at all. There are 'villains', but they are most certainly not what drives the story at all, nor are they meant to be. Anton Ego isn't even a villain, he's more like an obstacle. They don't have to defeat him. Winning his respect is the equivolent of winning the big race or finishing building your space robot. he's the finish line, his review is Remy's trophy.

    I should start notching on the wall how many times he misses the point of everything.

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  16. Ok, I guess structurally Big Fish is similar to Gump, but thematically? I don't think they're similar at all. Gump's stories are real and arguably just there to show off neat effects of the time and showcase big moment in American history. Big Fish is a metaphorical story that has fun around every corner. Not sure what "the tall tales are never actually tall enough" means. They seem pretty outlandish and "tall" to me.

    Obviously not saying you have to like it but don't hate on it for the wrong reasons. I mean how many stories tell the past through a narrator and then catch up? A LOT. Inside Man comes to mind. Though in the end, it's like you said in another thread, "different strokes." I actually don't have one criticism about Big Fish that I can think of. Comparing it to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (the original is lightyears better in almost every respect (acting, humor, songs, set design)) or Apes is almost insulting.

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  17. I did not reduce the film Goon.

    "I definitely think part of the reason the movie sucks"

    Keyword being part. Don't jump at me, I didn't even bring the movie up.

    All I remember of his last review was the bullshit "I'm just a critic and I didn't know that it's actually the artists who are important" stuff. How timidly childish can you get? I prefer the angsty teenage-rage of M. Night Shyamalan when he has his pretentious critics being eaten by monsters.

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