On a dark cold night, under full moon light, he flies into a fog like a vulture in the sky, and they call him Sandy Claws!
If you go back to the main page and look up my entry on the Who We Are page (go ahead, I’ll wait for you), you’ll see The Nightmare Before Christmas listed, along with classics such as Annie Hall and Casablanca, as one of my favorite movies. [Note: that section is now called “Dossiers,” and I’ve rewritten my list of favorite movies, and I do believe I omitted this one. You try listing your favorite films, and see how often the list changes.] While I dearly love every movie directed by Tim Burton, The Nightmare Before Christmas stands as my favorite of his movies. Okay, so he didn’t really direct it (Henry Selick did, but more on him later), but there’s a reason the full title is “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas“: it is his handiwork through and through.
Tim Burton’s career in Hollywood began with a stint as an animator at Disney. For those of you who think that must’ve been a fun or easy job, let me put it in perspective. Films run at roughly 24 frames per second. For your average full-length animated feature, that’s over 100,000 frames that must be painstakingly drawn by hand. A veritable army of artists toils over those frames, and Tim Burton was one of that army working on The Fox And The Hound. Needless to say, his creativity was stifled in the job. One of the side projects he worked on while at Disney was a poem (complete with illustrations) that would become the basis for The Nightmare Before Christmas.
After he left Disney, Burton became a director of some renown, directing films such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands. Finally, he had the clout to get his pet project produced, but because it was a creative idea he had hatched while at Disney, technically it was still their property. Fortunately, they were willing to work with him.
For directing duties, Tim Burton brought in stop motion guru Henry Selick. Selick graduated a year before Burton from the California Institute of the Arts, and had also worked in the Disney animation studio. While Burton had moved from Disney into mainstream Hollywood work, Selick relocated to the San Francisco area and worked with his beloved stop motion animation on a much smaller scale. Will Vinton (of California Raisins fame) and Nick Park (the creator of Wallace and Gromit, and the director of Chicken Run) may receive the most credit for the renaissance of stop-motion animation, but Selick’s less-heralded efforts are perhaps even more impressive. Over the years, he produced stop-motion bits for MTV (including a short film, Slow Bob In The Lower Dimensions) and for advertisements for Pillsbury and Ritz crackers (remember the ad with the crackers skiing through cheese on the moon? Henry Selick was the man responsible for it). After The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton and Selick collaborated on James And The Giant Peach. Selick’s next stop-motion film will be Monkeybone, scheduled for release in the fall of 2000.
The Nightmare Before Christmas showcases two of Tim Burton’s trademark influences: German expressionist films and stop-motion animation. The dark, foreboding sets, high-contrast lighting, and stark angles of The Nightmare Before Christmas (also seen in his Batman films) harken back to German films of the silent era, such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, and Metropolis. Burton has employed stop-motion animation in several of his earlier films, such as Large Marge’s transformation or Pee-Wee’s T-Rex dream in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the climactic “battle” in Beetlejuice (by the way, if you look closely in one particular scene, you can see Jack Skellington’s head atop Michael Keaton’s carousel hat). One can imagine that if he had made Mars Attacks! a few years earlier, the Martians would have been stop-motioned rather than computer graphics.
But, enough with the background information…what about the movie?
The premise of The Nightmare Before Christmas is that the major holidays each have their own “town”: Christmas Town (at the North Pole), Halloween Town, Fourth-Of-July Town, et cetera. We are introduced to the ghoulish residents of Halloween Town after another successful year’s Halloween celebration. There we meet Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King. Jack is depressed because he’s tired of doing the same thing year after year. While wandering off that night (surprisingly, it’s not always night in Halloween Town), he finds a circle of trees with curious doors leading into them. One tree has a brightly decorated Christmas tree as its door. When he opens it, he is whisked away in a flurry of snow, and dumped in the middle of Santa’s village. Jack is entranced with all the wonders of the happy, joyous holiday.
Jack returns to Halloween Town with trinkets from his visit to Christmas Town. At a town meeting, he tries to turn on the witches, vampires, and other monsters of Halloween Town to the joys of Christmas. They don’t get it. So, Jack spins it into something they can understand, and portrays Santa Claus as a horrible, menacing creature. Jack’s well-intentioned but misguided mission becomes to take over Christmas. He has “Sandy Claws” kidnapped by three devilish urchins, Lock, Shock, and Barrel. The town’s residents construct horrible toys to give to the girls and boys of the world. The town’s mad scientist creates, Dr. Frankenstein fashion, a set of reindeer to fly a sleigh (which itself was built from a coffin). Sally, the patchwork girl who loves Jack, sews him a red outfit to match his bony physique.
At long last, Christmas Eve arrives. Sally warns Jack that he is doing the wrong thing and that it will turn out badly, but he pays her no mind. Jack flies around the world, giving macabre presents to creeped-out children. Enraged parents begin calling the police when the toys attack their recipients. The military shoots him out of the sky. Dejected, Jack wonders where he went wrong. Finally, he realizes that he can only be who he really is: the Pumpkin King. He races to return Santa Claus to Christmas Town so the holiday can be made right.
Being an animated film, naturally The Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical. And naturally, being a Tim Burton movie, the songs are provided by his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman. The music and the visuals are inseparable. The songs are at once morbid and joyous, breathing life into characters who are at home with their dark, sinister nature. Take “What’s This?” for example. It is the song sung by Jack when he enters Christmas Town. To a tune befitting any “Frosty the Snowman” special, Jack sings lines like: “There’s children throwing snowballs here instead of throwing heads / They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead.”
The voice talent for The Nightmare Before Christmas is a splendid bunch, taken from the stable of Tim Burton regulars and sketch comedy geniuses. Chris Sarandon provides the speaking voice for Jack. You’ll probably remember him as the evil Prince Humperdinck of The Princess Bride (“If I am wrong, and I am never wrong…”). Danny Elfman is Jack’s singing voice, and also does the voice of Barrel (the one with the skull mask) of the impish trio Lock, Shock, and Barrel. The voice of Lock (the one in the devil costume) is Paul Reubens, Burton’s friend and collaborator on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The voice of Shock (in the witch’s costume) is Catherine O’Hara; she also voiced Sally the patchwork girl. O’Hara worked for several years as part of the Canadian Second City comedy troupe, but she is best known to American audiences as the mother in the first two Home Alone movies. She had worked previously with Burton in Beetlejuice. Glenn Shadix provides the voice of the two-faced Mayor (literally, he has two faces, a happy one on one side of his head and a sad face on the other side). Shadix’s name probably isn’t familiar to you, but you’d probably recognize him from his role as the interior decorator tuned into the paranormal in Beetlejuice or as the sniveling assistant in Demolition Man. Greg Proops, improvisational comedian extraordinaire, does the voices for several background characters. Proops appears frequently on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (both the British version and the current American version hosted by Drew Carey), provided the voice for one of the heads of the oh-so-annoying Pod Race announcer in The Phantom Menace (“That’s gotta hurt no matter what galaxy you’re from!”), and was a member of the Groundlings comedy troupe (of which Paul Reubens is also an alumnus).
Disney’s DVD version of The Nightmare Before Christmas was released way back in 1997. As such, it shares many of the problems with other early Disney DVD releases: it’s non-anamorphic and extra-free. First though, let me be a little more positive. The film is presented in 1.66:1 widescreen, its theatrical aspect ratio. While the picture could have benefited from anamorphic enhancement, it is as close to perfect as possible. The important quality of the picture is the black level. From the moment the opening song begins, you’ll see that the black level is dead-on accurate and the movie’s high-contrast design is captured perfectly. Only occasional shimmering mars the picture, and even then it is not overly distracting. I have no complaints about the audio. It is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The surrounds are used effectively and often for Elfman’s score. I can’t recall seeing the LFE meter on my receiver twitch much during the film, but the deep, rich string section is distributed among the other channels.
My only complaint about the DVD presentation of The Nightmare Before Christmas is the dearth of extras. The only “extra” is what is mislabeled as the “original theatrical trailer.” It’s actually the sort of lead-in that you see on most children’s videocassettes. The lack of extras is even more depressing considering there was a Laserdisc special edition containing a director’s commentary track, storyboard sequences, deleted scenes, still frames, and (best of all) Tim Burton’s short film Frankenweenie. The rumor has been going around that Disney would revisit the movie and give it DVD special edition treatment, but don’t hold your breath.
UPDATE: So I go and complain that Disney will take forever to re-release a special edition, and the next day they announce that it will be released on September 15, 2000, and will contain all the aforementioned laserdisc extras. No word if there will be a new video transfer, but the original release is good enough so I don’t mind if they don’t. Now maybe I’ll hold my breath, and they’ll announce that Ed Wood is going to be released…
The Nightmare Before Christmas was one of the first DVDs I purchased when I bought my DVD player, preceded only by The Matrix and L.A. Confidential. Lack of extras aside, I consider it to be a movie that should be in any collection. It’s a movie that anyone can and should enjoy. My first nephew was born just under a month ago. I’m looking forward to the day when he’s old enough and my sister will let me baby-sit him, so I can introduce little Alex to The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I don’t normally comment about non-English audio tracks, but the French track is worth a listen, particularly during Chapter 5. Somehow, it just struck me as funny to hear the “Town Meeting Song” sung in a depressed French voice.