What can I say about The Nightmare Before Christmas, directed by Henry Selick and based on Tim Burton’s original short story, that hasn’t been said before? Well, aside from the fact that it’s now an entire quarter-century old, which almost beggars belief. Though you know what? It still very much holds up.
Released in 1993, Nightmare is both the quintessential Halloween movie and also a perfect Christmas film. There’s nothing else quite like it out there, and its enduring popularity is validated by the scores of merchandise still readily available for alternative teenagers discovering their identity, and finding out they like things that are just a little weirder than everything else.
It’s that sense of weirdness that pervades the film, most notably from the very beginning. Selick’s film sets out its stall immediately, and after a brief introduction to the concept of “Holiday Worlds” existing, plunges you straight into its first, iconic musical number: This is Halloween. It’s a perfect marriage of wonderful animation (bolstered by some traditional, 2D-animated ghosts over the spot-on stop-motion) and Danny Elfman’s talent for writing catchy-as-hell songs that won’t leave your brain for days. It’s here that we meet the hero of our story: Jack Skellington (wonderfully voiced by Chris Sarandon), a face recognisable on every emo (is that even still a thing?) girl’s backpack. Jack is, very obviously, the heart and soul of the movie: the King of Halloween who has grown bored of his throne after countless years of the same routine, over and over again.
I won’t bore you with plot details, as I highly doubt that if you’re reading this review, you’ll be new to the movie. And if you are new to it, I don’t want to spoil a plot that has some wonderful twists to it, as well as a message that I think is genuinely quite heartwarming in the end.
Though, in the interest of providing an actual critique instead of just gushing about the movie (even though I count it as one of my all time favourites and have seen it more times than I can count), I will say that I am not a fan of Sally’s subplot. For this reviewer, it falls a little too far into “Nice Girl” trope territory for me to be entirely comfortable with. You know, the one that says “I know he’s a mischievous bad boy, but maybe he’ll change his ways if I just love him hard enough”. Meanwhile, the male object of affection is entirely clueless. It’s a fairly tired trope, and I find it does affect my enjoyment of the movie somewhat.
However, that is really the only flaw I can think of. The rest of the movie is richly deserving of its status as a classic. I particularly enjoy the visual contrast between Halloween Town, with its Gothic architecture and a visual aesthetic that’s in love with German Expressionism, and Christmas Town, which could easily have strolled straight out of the pages of a fairytale story book. It’s this contrast that ensures the film is always a delight to look at, and is easily one of the best looking films based on Burton’s designs. Indeed, it was refreshing to see the Burton aesthetic in its full, weird-as-heck flow, something that the films directed by him seem to have lost in recent years, replaced by muddy CGI. I’m looking at you, Alice in Wonderland.
I mentioned it briefly earlier on, but another huge part of what makes Nightmare what it is is Danny Elfman’s exemplary soundtrack, which stands alongside films like Batman, Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands as one of his finest. Obviously, it’s the songs that stand out the most, with This is Halloween, What’s This, Kidnap the Sandy Claws and Oogie Boogie’s Song being the obvious highlights. As well as being catchy, the songs are wonderfully married to the animation, conveying just the right amount of energy for the lyrics and melody of each individual song.
Of course, I can’t mention Oogie Boogie’s Song without talking about the guy himself. Oogie is one of my favourite animated villains, ranging from incredibly charming – helped in no small part by Ken Page’s buttery smooth voice – to being comically furious at the misdeeds of his hapless minions Lock, Stock and Barrel. He’s about as close as perfect a villain as you can get, and almost steals the film right out from under Jack’s feet.
Quite simply, Christmas (and Halloween) isn’t complete without a viewing of this off-kilter, macabre, gorgeous, wholesome piece of family entertainment for tender lumplings everywhere (life’s no fun without a good scare). Just, beware of the clown with the tear-away face, and for the love of all that’s holy, don’t kidnap Santa.