This year marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Through a combination of Tim Burton’s vision and strength of concept, Henry Selick’s direction of stop-motion animation, and Danny Elfman’s score and lyrics, The Nightmare Before Christmas stands as not only a seasonal classic but a filmmaking masterpiece.
And on top of all that, for the generation of children who were the film’s first audience (i.e. me and every other youngin’ of the 1990s) the level at which they identify with the film’s characters and themes is unparalleled. It’s a connection stronger than simple nostalgia.
But why is this? What makes an animated, holiday film from two decades ago resonate so strongly today? For one, it has a timeless quality present in the best of holiday specials. Burton was influenced by classic Christmas ‘toons like Rankin & Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Along with Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, those specials and Burton’s signature macabre style laid the foundation for his poem, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
That poem introduced Jack Skellington, his desire for something new, and a plan to abscond Sandy Claws–sorry, Santa Claus’ holiday. The concept behind The Nightmare Before Christmas perfectly mixes the frightening-yet-fun aspects of Halloween that children enjoy with the whimsy of Christmas. And it’s a strong concept, one the film develops exceedingly well.
Another key to The Nightmare Before Christmas’ success and longevity was Burton seeking Henry Selick – a fellow, former disgruntled Disney animator – as his collaborator. The film is impeccably made and stands as a pinnacle achievement in stop-motion animation. Not to mention this is a stop-motion musical, a separate feat all on its own. Selick took Burton’s concept of holiday lands based on Halloween and Christmas and all their inhabits and ran with it. The design of Halloweentown is drenched in the German Expressionism found in films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, while Christmas Town could easily be the same North Pole seen in Rudolph with several Suessian influences added for flavor.
Add to that the scene where Jack discovers the doors leading to all the different holidays and audiences immediately begin imagining the lands hidden behind them. (Though, I’d be afraid to find out what’s behind that Thanksgiving door. Turkey genocide?)
The characters themselves are imaginative and never repetitive. They could have chosen to populate Halloweentown with a cliched, hodge-podge of Halloween staples – werewolves, vampires, ghost, witches – but instead Halloweentown is home to demons, scary clowns, lake monsters, and some dude with an ax in his head. Not that werewolves, witches and the like don’t appear, but when they do they’re cleverly represented. The vampires with their umbrellas, for instance. And what about the Mayor with a literal two-face? The film is chocked full of gags just like it, building an interesting, believable world.
And what a world! We’re given an amazing view of the landscape Jack, Sally, and everyone inhabit thanks to some tricky and impressive camera work. Re-watch the film and pay close attention to how much the camera moves as it is very fluid. Again, considering the entire film is animated in stop-motion and what a labor intensive art form that is, the fact they took the care in not only animating but also camera work is beyond impressive. The camera pans, tilts, and straight up twirls around characters and through sets just like any live-action motion picture.
Besides the look of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s definitely the music of the film that’s made it so iconic and memorable. Adding songs to animated films is textbook Disney, and it easily could have turned into a disaster for The Nightmare Before Christmas if not handled by just the right man. Burton knew exactly who he wanted in charge of the film’s music and sought out Danny Elfman. (Has there ever even been a Burton film without a score from Elfman?) Not only did Elfman write all ten songs for the film, but he also provides the singing voice for Jack. His songs are instantly recognizable, even without the context of the film, and it’s impossible to watch without singing along. And like any good musical, much of the film’s progression is handled in song. Tunes like “Jack’s Lament”, “What’s This?”, “Making Christmas”, all provide not only entertaining ditties but important plot points and developments.
Elfman has been quoted about the writing process for The Nightmare Before Christmas, saying it was, “one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I had a lot in common with Jack Skellington.” And in that statement he’s nailed what makes this film resonate with audiences so fiercely: its core character, Jack Skellington. Jack embodies that feeling of dissatisfaction we all have from time to time. His depression stems from wanting change, to do something different, and it’s difficult for others to understand because from where they’re standing – Jack’s got everything. He’s a master scarer, ruler of Halloweentown, and beloved by all its residents. (Well, perhaps not Oogie Boogie.)
Jack’s the Pumpkin King, for Halloween’s sake! But it isn’t enough to fill the void in his heart, that longing he can’t quite put his boney finger on. In this sense, we all relate to Jack Skellington because we’ve all, at one point or another, felt dissatisfied with life. Even when there’s no real reason – you’re doing well in school, have a great job, are surrounded by wonderful friends – there are still times when you’re blue. In a way, the audience is Sally, too; observing from afar, seeing Jack’s mistakes, but at the same time empathizing. “Jack, I know how you feel,” she says after listening to his lament in the graveyard, and at that moment, so do we.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is hands down one of my favorite films of all time. Were I stranded on a desert island (that somehow had the capabilities for playing such media) it’d be at the top of my list for must-have flicks. Now’s the perfect time – what with Halloween leading ever quickly into the Christmas season – to revisit The Nightmare Before Christmas (easily accessible on Netflix Instant!) or to share with some youngin’ you know who’ll appreciate the songs and magic of stop-motion, but also, find a kindred spirit in Jack Skellington.