From the Archive: The Nightmare Before Christmas

I regret that not one of the five-hundred-plus words of this review is “Selick.” I bought completely into the hype of the time asserting that The Nightmare Before Christmas was a Tim Burton creation, and anyone else in the credits was simply doing his bidding. Director Henry Selick later expressed some consternation that his painstaking work was marginalized in favor of lauding the more famous producer and co-writer of the project. I’d argue that Selick’s far better track record with subsequent stop-motion animation features than Burton’s suggests that, as with most other films, the director deserves the heftiest share of responsibility for what does and doesn’t work.

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As a director, Tim Burton has always been a marginal storyteller who made up for muddled plots with the sheer audacity of his imagination. Seeing his deliriously odd creations run amok on the screen in the major new feature film “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” The film, crafted with stop-motion animation, relates a fable about the Pumpkin King ruler of Halloween, a toothpick-thin, hollow-eyed soul named Jack Skellington. Jack and the other denizens of Halloweentown are still celebrating their achievements during the most recent All Hallow’s Eve, but Jack is filled with a longing for a new experience. His wish is granted when he stumbles into Christmasland and is joyously awestruck by the snow, colorful lights, and goodwill. This leads Jack to kidnap Santa Claus and take over Christmas, constructing a coffin sleigh led by skeletal reindeer and delivering morbid gifts such as severed heads and cute wooden duckies with viciously sharp teeth. As Jack is embarking on his misguided celebration, Santa Claus is being tortured by the film’s villain, a sadistic, bug-infested gunnysack named Oogie Boogie.

Clearly, this is not your father’s Disney animated feature. The film is darkly funny and downright creepy while providing a gluttonous feast for the eyes. In a nicely devious touch, the stop-motion animation is a direct descendant of the annually repeated old Christmas specials featuring Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But Rudolph’s adventures never bustled with as much activity as this film. At times it seems there’s a different treat to spot on every inch of the screen, with the stunning designs of the holiday towns and the loopy cast of supporting characters, led by Halloweentown’s boisterous mayor, a politician who’s literally two-faced, as the mischievous trick-or-treaters who abduct Santa Claus, Lock, Shock, and Barrel. While it’s true that most of these creations never become fully realized characters, they are always zipping through the film in crafty, funny form.

It’s more of a problem that the character of Jack Skellington never completely takes shape. The voice characterization by Chris Sarandon is thoroughly bland. Far better is the film’s song and score composer, Danny Elfman, who lends Jack his singing voice. In any given song, Elfman expertly whips Jacks through a dozen different emotions, ricocheting from shame to pride to determination with the change of a line. With the exception of “What’s This,” the song that accompanies Jack’s discovery of Christmas, none of the songs have the kind of hook that locks in your head, but Elfman’s lyrics occasionally approach the brilliant wordplay of late “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid” lyricist Howard Ashman. In fact, the only music that doesn’t delight is a slow, droning love song sung by Sally, the sad rag doll who pines for Jack. But that’s just representative of the whole subplot, a love story that seems so obligatory that no one involved in the project even attempted to breathe life into it.

Yet, at a brisk seventy-five minutes, the film doesn’t linger on anything long enough to drag it down. While it’s true that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” may leave audiences leaving a bit undernourished, as if they’ve just viewed a film without a center, the wild, witty, and completely unique images that mask the emptiness will not soon be forgotten.

(3 stars, out of 4)