Looking back on… The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Directed by: Henry Selick

Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page
Written by Helen
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The Nightmare Before Christmas serves as the perfect gateway to bridge that odd transition from the end of October and its Halloween focus, to Christmas. For people like me who get a bit uppity about Christmas music starting in November, it’s a film that helps get me into the festive spirit.

Now thirteen years old, but still as wonderfully creative and original as it must have been when it first came out, it’s a film I’ve grown up with; it feels timeless. One that, like all the best Christmas films, you can watch again and again and keep rediscovering new, intricate details. Perhaps what sets it apart is that you could quite easily watch it for Halloween and again just weeks after for the holidays. Not many films that feel seasonal work in several of them! Or can be watched a way off either of their celebrated holidays without feeling wrong.

The opening feels like a traditional way to start a holiday film though. With a voice-over to introduce us to the story, or what’s to come, from Patrick Stewart is a good opening. The music’s not quite as happy as we’ve come to expect for a Christmas film, which sets up the tone more appropriately. This may well be the least Christmassy film that focuses on its holiday, what with the bugs and the monsters, but it still retains the value of being with those you love and the thought of the present being worth more than the gift itself.

Always regarded as Tim Burton’s film, it does a disservice to director Henry Selick. Yes, Burton came up with the story and characters but Selick’s touch is huge. He truly brought it all to life and is responsible for so many of the intricate details that we’ll come back to. Jack’s iconic pinstripe suit? Was supposed to be just black until the director saw it all blended a little too well and added the stripes. For those who do doubt this, watch any of Selick’s other films. Jack, or the image of him, always makes an appearance, however minor and brief.

For a stop-animation film, I liked that they still very much concentrated on light and shadow. Shadow is played on a lot in this film, and very well, creating silhouettes, often terrifying or in stark contrast to what we’re really seeing. The black and white versus colour is also cleverly done. Halloween Town is dark and dingy for the most part, whereas Christmas Town is so bright, there’s hardly any black, or white aside from snow. What we see once Jack has been there, and once he properly connects with Sally, is more and more colour creeping into his world. Now would you say you associate any of this dark, fantasy stuff with Disney? Maybe not so much, but it’s fascinating how much they allowed to happen that they weren’t quite sure about.

The design is unique and brilliant and has inspired so many other works since. It’s the astonishing attention to detail that’s carried throughout the film. Everything is themed so well and with such wonderful flair. Take the Mayor for example (who, with two interchangeable faces, I assume has to have inspired The Lego Movie‘s Good Cop/Bad Cop). I wonder if he was based on a toy I had, a Weeble, you know the old saying that went with them that was ‘weebles wobble but they don’t fall over’. He’s over the top with everything, like panicking when there’s only 365 (364, actually) days until the next Halloween and the fabulous line when they’re missing Jack and he wails “Did anyone think to dredge the lake?”.  There’s a part I only truly spotted as an adult though. When he freaks out because there’s a spider on him and he accidentally crushes it into a bow-tie shape, which is exactly where it sits for the rest of the film.

I could fill pages with my favourite individual details, so I’ll name but a few. Zero the ghost dog, the best one ever if you ask me. The design is cute, but elegant and the pumpkin on the end of his nose that lights up is an ideal touch. Halloween Town is everything you expect when you imagine a place like that, and more. The jaunty, mis-matched houses, the different creatures and characters with their own traits. Oogie Boogie as the cool villain, playing on the fear of a boogeyman in rather camp but great fashion. Like the operatic singing vampires, the cold band who hang out on the bridge and provide us with music and then of course, the Pumpkin King himself, Jack Skellington. It’s all iconic, adorning any item you can think of and the source for many a tattoo and costume, but Jack is the pinnacle of them all.

Some of the scenes that work best for me are when we see the town together and the interaction between all characters. Like the town meeting for example. It was only on this latest viewing that I spotted the reaper hiding at the back. But it’s Jack’s charming efforts to try and teach them about Christmas, an entirely foreign concept to them. The way they try to make it happen, but never quite grasp exactly what it’s about. It’s when the voice-overs really come to life, a superb cast all around, but particular highs from Chris Sarandon and Catherine O’Hara of course.

Now it would be a crime to write further without bringing Sally into play. I didn’t appreciate her quite as much as I should have as a child, but as an adult, she’s the heart of the story. Strong and independent, despite her lunatic creator, she’s inventive and brave, never afraid to do what she wants but still with a joyous innocence about her. Most of the time she’s the only sane one amongst them too, saving Jack, and ultimately their town, once it all goes a little wrong. Plus that’s despite the fact that nobody listened to her when she tried to warn them. For little girls watching, she’s a great role model and I dare anybody not to adore her.

I’ve never quite seen this as a children’s film entirely. There’s so much here for the older generation, including some of the lines and when Jack’s trying to figure out the secret to Christmas and is holding a book called ‘The Scientific Method’ which always makes me chuckle. When I was wondering what made it quite so timeless and good at almost any time, it came back to the themes. It looks at loneliness, at the feeling of repeating things over and over, looking for a change. Probably themes adults can relate to far more. Though the wondrous elements and the design certainly would appeal to kids.

Danny Elfman gets a lot of plaudits for the songs in this, and that’s more than fair. They’re an important part of the film but it never feels cheesy or overblown. The lyrics are genius, one of the highlights definitely being ‘Kidnap the Sandy Claws’. They’re clever and catchy. You can barely go a year without one company or another using a version of ‘What’s this?’ in a Christmas advert. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ll know at least one of the songs. The music in between is just as good. The band I mentioned earlier for example who play in the background of scenes and aid Sally musically are great.

2016 has been a testing year, filled with lots of sadness and tragedy and it’s films like this that can give you a boost and ease you into festive cheer. It’s still a joy to watch each year, and I suspect it will remain on my festive watch-list for many more to come.

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