Retrospective Reviews: “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

The_nightmare_before_christmas_posterThis film makes for a nice transition review for me: it’s Halloween-related, to finish up my Halloween reviews, it’s Christmas-related, to get myself excited for Christmas far too early, and it’s an animated film, which fits with November being my animated movie month (still trying to come up with a better name for this month, but we’ll figure that out later). Thus we come to a film that bears Tim Burton’s name, but was only conceived and produced by Burton, and directed by Henry Selick; this is, of course, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is still dripping with Burton’s signature surreal and dark imagery. And for many years, people have wondered: is this a Halloween movie trying to be a Christmas movie, a Christmas movie trying to be a Halloween movie, or is it something to be enjoyed in the in-between time? I’m inclined to say that this movie is a late-Halloween movie, something to enjoy when you’ve depleted all of your candy reserves, you start thinking about throwing out your Jack-O-lantern, and the department stores start to promote Christmas way too freaking early. This is a Halloween movie with a few Christmas tendencies, and, above all, it’s a fun, musically-inclined, and darkly cute animated film.

In the film, various holidays are represented by worlds that adhere to the look and feel of the holiday all year round (I shutter to think how drunk the people are in St. Patrick’s Day Town. Or how annoyingly lovey-dovey they are in Valentine’s Day Town. But I digress). In the world of Halloween Town, Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) is the Pumpkin King, in charge of making every Halloween scarier and creepier than the last; after doing the same old thing for many years, Jack has grown tired of Halloween and desires something new to excite and challenge him. He gets his chance when he stumbles upon the door to Christmas Town, where Santa Claus (Ed Ivory) (or, as Jack calls him, Sandy Claws) prepares for Christmas. Jack is amazed with the cheer and joy he sees all around him. He decides to take over Christmas for that year, and gets the monsters of Halloween Town, including a rag doll named Sally (Catherine O’Hara), to put their own Halloween-esque twist on the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. As you can imagine, hijinks ensue involving the people of Halloween Town, Santa Claus, and the strange and bizarre villain Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), and Jack must find a way to save Christmas before it’s too late for Ol’ St. Nick.

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: this movie is stylistically gorgeous. In an age when most animated films are animated using computers, the use of stop motion animation is a nice change of pace; you can tell how much work went into the characters’ very unique designs, and both Halloween Town and Christmas Town really capture the essence of their respective holidays. The music is also lovely and very atmospheric, and gives us a look at composer Danny Elfman’s singing chops, as he provided the singing voice for Jack Skellington. The other characters have very enjoyable singing voices, and the songs can range from whimsical to creepy to terrifying. For those who are curious, the three songs that stood out the most for me were “This is Halloween,” “What’s This?,” and “Poor Old Jack,” while the other songs, though good in their own right, took a back seat to these three in terms of catchiness and staying power.

All the characters are enjoyable, though some seem almost too cartoony for their own good (I realize the irony that this is, in fact, an animated film). Jack Skellington is great fun, and seeing him obsess over trying to figure out the “science” of Christmas makes for some great laughs, especially since all of these common Christmassy things are very self-explanatory to the audience, but not so for Jack, since his whole life has been saturated with Halloween. Being tall and lanky, Jack has some really fun movements, adding more to his unique style. Sally is good as the “isolated girl who wants to see the world beyond her window,” but she can sometimes stray dangerously close to damsel in distress territory, especially near the film’s climax; this is kept to a minimum, though, and the way she takes advantage of how her body can be taken apart and put back together leads to some great scenes. Also, the romance between her and Jack is cute and really fun to watch unfold. Santa Claus, uncharacteristically for his usual outings, is kind of cold and annoyed throughout much of his time in the film, but it’s pretty understandable after he’s kidnapped and almost killed; and on the bright side, he does come around near the end to help make things right again. It was nice to see a more annoyed side of the jolly old elf we see again and again in pop culture. Oogie Boogie, while a very entertaining character with a creative design and lair, was the one character that seemed a bit too cartoony for me; he’s basically a bad guy to have a laugh and cause trouble. He’s almost like the Joker in that regard. But he’s still really enjoyable, as are the other characters in the film.

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Now, it’s time for me to address what has often been a debate among moviegoers: is this movie a Halloween movie, a Christmas movie, both, or neither? Well, there is no way in Hell that I’d watch this around Christmastime, so it’s not a Christmas movie; like I said before, it’s a late-Halloween movie, something that you might watch after you go trick or treating with your friends or with a group of kids, or maybe something you watch a few days after Halloween to squeeze out a few more Halloween feels. It definitely has elements of both a Halloween and Christmas movie, with the scares and atmosphere being very Halloween and the ultimate message being very Christmas-related; Jack starts this movie being bored and unhappy about his current lot in life, but by the end of the film, he appreciates what makes Halloween so much fun for him. Jack needed a break from the scares to realize that scaring is what he does best and enjoys most.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a great way to sate any last-minute Halloween withdrawal while also preparing us for the month-and-a-half or so before Christmas, though I’d definitely recommend watching it within the next few days rather than on Christmas Eve (that’s the time to watch Rudolph, if we’re being honest with ourselves). Great animation, great voice acting, a world dripping with atmosphere and creativity, and some great music from the great Danny Elfman, this film brings the holiday cheers along with some last-minute Halloween fears.

Score: 8/10

Written by Joey Sack

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