Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Movie Information

The Story: Tired of the same old thing, the King of Halloween, Jack Skellington, decides to take over another holiday -- Christmas -- and make it his own. The Lowdown: If this slightly twisted musical fantasy isn't perfect, it's close enough that it hardly matters, and its new 3-D incarnation only enhances that.
Genre: Musical Fantasy
Director: Henry Selick
Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Paul Reubens, Glenn Shadix
Rated: PG

It’s a little sobering that the best movie opening in town this week is 14 years old (I exempt Across the Universe, since that technically opened last week), but then Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a unique work that it would be pretty daunting competition in any week, month or year.

The fact that the folks at Disney (who, ironically, were originally less than pleased with the dark fantasy) have dusted it off and remonkeyed it in their Real D 3-D process is merely the icing on the cake. What’s truly great is simply having the film back on movie screens. Still, the 3-D is mighty tasty icing. No, it can’t lay claim to being a great 3-D picture, in the sense that the original wasn’t designed with 3-D in mind. With the exception of the snowflakes at the end of the film (they seem to float in the theater), there’s nothing very in your face about the 3-D. But the depth it adds to the images is often breathtaking. The movie’s already stunning visuals seem to go back into the screen, level upon level upon level. It’s as if someone made a 3-D movie, but decided not to indulge in the format’s gimmicks.

It’s rare that a filmmaker inserts his name into the title of a film with justification. And even though Burton did not direct the film, this is a case where it seems fully justified. One needs only view titular director Henry Selick’s subsequent James and the Giant Peach (1996) to realize that this is truly Burton’s film, regardless of who signed it. If any other single name belongs on Nightmare, it’s Danny Elfman’s, not Selick’s.

The Oingo Boingo front man had scored all of Burton’s films starting with Burton’s first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), but here Elfman all but takes center stage, composing the film’s songs in a style that can best be described as Elfman meets Kurt Weill and singing the lead role of Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon handles the speaking voice). There’d always been a sense that Elfman was a kind of coconspirator on Burton’s films, but here it’s more pronounced. The songs make up so much of the action that it’s tempting to view Elfman as an uncredited collaborator on the script.

Indeed, viewers should check out Danny’s brother Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone (1980) to see what an influence that exercise in bizarre cinema had on this film. (Note: Forbidden Zone is most definitely not for kids—or the easily offended, for that matter.) And after that, check out the early 1930s Max Fleischer Betty Boop cartoons that inform both films. (At one point in Nightmare the film even duplicates dialogue—“What are you gonna do now?”/“Gonna do the best I can”—from Fleischer’s The Old Man of the Mountain (1933).)

The genesis of the film aside, Nightmare is simply a charmingly twisted delight for the entire 76 minutes of its running time. The very concept of the King of Halloween, Jack Skellington, deciding that he prefers Christmas to his own holiday is inspired, while his decision to kidnap Santa Claus and hijack the entire operation is no less so. That neither Jack nor anyone else in Halloweentown actually grasps the holiday is where the fun comes in—and great fun it is, too.

From the standpoint of Burton’s oeuvre, Nightmare is also something of a breakthrough work. Sure, it’s still a celebration of the outsider as hero, but for the first time in Burton’s career, we’re given an outsider, Jack, who finds a partner, the stitched-together Frankensteinian Sally (Catherine O’Hara). It’s as if Burton has finally concluded that neither he nor his characters are quite so alone as his previous work suggested. But beyond all this, Nightmare is just a truly wonderful film. Don’t miss seeing it on the big screen where it belongs. Rated PG

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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One thought on “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

  1. Ken Hanke

    I should point out that this review originally ran last year (hence the reference to Across the Universe just opening). That means that Nightmare is now 15 years old — and though all I’ve seen of this week’s other new offerings is Saw V, I’d be willing to bet that after I’ve seen Pride and Glory and High School Musical 3 I’ll once again be saying that Nightmare is the best thing opening this week. I caught the first few minutes the other night when the film was being checked to insure the 3-D was alright. Saw it up through the first big musical number — and once again I experienced that little frisson of delight that only occurs when you know you’re in the presence of something remarkable.

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