It’s a commonly held misconception that Tim Burton directed “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” And while the directorial reins were in fact taken by Henry Selick who would later go on to direct “Coraline,” the immensely successful film does have the former’s thumbprint all over it. Indeed, it is defining of Burton’s filmic style and imagination and has over the past fifteen years not only become synonymous with his name but also with a whole generation of goth and emo sub-culture taking inspiration from his zany visuals. Established as a cult classic of sorts and certainly not everybody’s cup of tea, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” masquerades as a children’s movie when really it is everything but, containing the sort of dark humour that is firmly aimed at an adult audience, yet doing away with the endless pop-culture references that would suffocate some of the animated genre in the new millennium. Originally conceived as a poem by Tim Burton in his days as an animator, the film tells its story as a musical and with over 200 puppets animated through stop-motion that owes a lot of similarities to the British Aardman studio.
In a fantasy world where every holiday season or occasion is run by its own town, we are introduced to Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and Danny Elfman) and his gang of monsters, demons, ghosts and other nasties responsible for Halloween. And although he’s the Pumpkin King, Jack is tired of the endless scares and feels that something is missing in his life. After a chance discovery of “Christmas town” he becomes obsessed with this second holiday, introduces it to his friends and decides that this year he wants Christmas for himself. The citizens of Halloween are well meaning and eagerly prepare, unaware that their unconventional methods will ruin the festive season for everyone else. As a complication, the head of Christmas town, the brilliantly named Sandy Claws is kidnapped and ends up in the hands of the dangerous Oogie Boogey (Ken Page). Only the efforts of rag-doll Sally (Catherine O’Hara) who has feelings for Jack might be able to set things right on time. The tale is exactly as weird and crooked as it sounds and is brilliantly staged from start to finish. Credit is due to Burton, Selick and indeed all the animators who executed such an uncanny concept with a love that shows on screen in all the tiny details (most of which will probably go unnoticed on a first viewing) of their twisted fairytale.
The character creation and production design is at the forefront of the film’s quirky charm – just think of that iconically twirled hilltop – although it is divisive in so far as it will be a deterrent to some viewers, as it will entice others. That is not to say “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a love it or hate it affair. Except for younger children that is, who will probably spill some tears on the filmmakers’ gleeful destruction of their favourite holiday. But therein lies the genius of the film: So different is its approach, it is instantly memorable. The portrayal of Oogie Boogie’s casino-like lair in the film’s second half is at odds with the rest of the film’s visuals and his song too does not fit in although of course a boogie would the most appropriate kind. Curiously a sub-plot between Sally and her creator, the mad scientist Dr. Finklestein is also left hanging in the ropes at the film’s conclusion, offering no closure. But then, these are small detractions and do not affect the overall impact of the film that is a very positive one.
The film’s other great strength of course, lies in the artistic talents of a certain Danny Elfman who not only wrote all the songs and underscore but also voices several of the characters including Skellington Jack. His vision has always been at one with Tim Burton’s and is very much in evidence as images and music are clearly tailored for each other. From the opening “This is Halloween,” wondrous discovery of “What’s This?” to the lament that is “Sally’s Song,” Elfman’s music overflows with theme and style that is deeply emotional as it is off-kilter and schizophrenic. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” as well as earlier collaboration with Burton on “Edward Scissorhands,” forms the culmination of the composer’s career. Which of the two tops the list will differ for every listener but “Nightmare” has an exceptionally strong case with beautiful thematic music that perpetrates the underscore as well as the show-piece songs. Elfman’s abilities to combine the two is demonstrated by the strong end-credits suite that neatly sums up all the main ideas from the film. On album, the score has received several treatments, but sadly all of Disney’s double-disc efforts have yielded only disappointing and in some cases truly terrible remixes of the Marilyn Manson and Fall Out Boy kind. Restricted to the first disc however, you will be treated to a masterpiece not only in the animated or musical film genres but some extremely sticky (in a good sense) material. By rights it demands its place in every score collection.
This is truly a film that needs to be seen to be believed. And that is by no means a criticism: “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is a visual treat and can transcend the sub-cultures that adore it most and be appreciated by the regular viewer. It’s Tim Burton at his demented best. Except it’s not Tim Burton. Oh stop…
Songs & Score
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