BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

AKA Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Henry Selick

FEATURING: Voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Ken Page

PLOT: Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, discovers Christmas and tries

Still from The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

to recreate it, with ghoulish results.

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINE: As a children’s film, The Nightmare Before Christmas has a high hurdle to overcome. Since it’s aimed at kids, the movie is permitted to indulge in imagination and fantasy, so long as it uses a conventional story framework and takes a stab at conveying a useful moral lesson. Nightmare has a great, morbid motivating idea and is a triumph of macabre art design, but at heart it doesn’t stray very far from the childrens’ film format. If it’s eventually to be counted amongst the weird, it will be solely for its incidentals and visuals.

COMMENTS: The opening song introduces us to the ghastly denizens of Halloweentown, including the expected assortment of witches, vampires and ghosts, but also a creature with black and white striped snakes for fingers, the “clown with the tearaway face,” and a two-faced mayor with a spinning top for a head and a freakishly phallic stovepipe hat. This legion of scary weirdos are ruled over by Jack Skellington, an elegant but spindly skeleton in a pinstripe suit. A grim gray pallor hangs over the town, which features an Expressionist pumpkin patch/boneyard with slanted tombstones and a curlicue hill permanently posed before a giant yellow moon. Bored with the repetitive routine of  Halloween, Skellington seeks new vistas and finds one when he stumbles onto Christmastown, an eye-popping festival of lights and toys set among blinding white snowbanks ruled over by a jolly fat man; the town provides the perfect visual and spiritual contrast to gloomy Halloweentown. A holiday architect looking for a new challenge, Jack decides to “take over” Christmas (incidentally kidnapping Santa Claus). After futile attempts to ferret out the meaning of Christmas by dissecting teddy bears and placing crushed ornaments in boiling beakers, Skellington hatches a plan to pose as Kris Kringle and deliver toys himself, which leads to the film’s keystone sequence: a horrific Christmas Eve sleigh ride through a doomed village, where the Santa-suited skeleton leaves ghoulishly inappropriate gifts for Christmastown’s tots, including a severed head and a tannenbaum-swallowing snake. It all ends in disaster, as Jack, who began with the best of intentions, realizes that his amateur staging of Christmas was a Nightmare and that he has to set things right and reaffirm his devotion to the Satanic rites of All Hallow’s Eve. The moral seems to be, attempts to understand other cultures are doomed to failure; stick to your own kind.

The character designs and intricate, almost hidden gruesome details (like the skeletal Halloween cock that crows the dawn) are the triumph of Nightmare. With a couple of exceptions—the bubbly, Broadwayesque “What’s This?” when bemused Jack first discovers Christmastown (“There’s children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead!”) and a deviant number sung by three mischievous trick or treaters who plan to kidnap “Sandy Claws” (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws, throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years, then see if he talks”)—Danny Elfman’s songs are flat and unmemorable, advancing the plot but not thrilling the ear. The story is also exceedingly thin, even at its trim running time of under 80 minutes. The original concept came from a Burton parody of Clement Moore’s “Twas the Night Before Christmas;” to pad out the running time, a romantic subplot and an antagonist were added. The love interest is Sally, a stitched-together female Frankenstein forever losing her limbs.  She’s constantly scheming to escape her creator, a duck-billed mad scientist with a detachable brainpan who wants to keep her locked in his castle, and she acts as a cautionary voice for Jack, trying to warn him off his insane Yuletide scheme. There’s no spark to their relationship, though, and though their romantic ending is pretty, it’s also pretty meaningless in story terms. The villain, Oogie Boogie the Boogeyman, is another wonderful character in search of a plot function. A burlap sack stuffed with creepy crawlies, gruff Ken Page gives him a 1920s boogie-woogie singer’s voice, and he makes a hell of a hellish impression. But he’s introduced late and has no real motivation: it’s unclear why he thinks that bumping off Santa Claus will help him unseat Skellington as king of Halloweentown. He pads the film, but his main purposes are to set up an unnecessary, anticlimactic action sequence for the finale, and (more importantly) to provide Selick the opportunity to build another magical set. And Oogie’s lair is it’s own freaky, fun world: his hideout is casino themed, with living gunfighter slot machines and worms crawling through the pips of dice, and it’s bathed UV lights to give the puppets an eerie glow. Though the script could have done much more to make him a meaningful antagonist, the awesome visuals this boogeyman inspires are reason enough for him to take up space in Nightmare‘s world. The entire story takes a back seat to the cute, Gothic animation, so why should Sally and Oogie Boogie be any different?

The idea for Nightmare was originally sketched out by Tim Burton at Disney Studios, before they fired him for “wasting company resources” by making Frankenweenie. After the director found success outside the Magic Kingdom, Disney was willing to work with him again, and he served as Nightmare‘s producer and even got his name in the title. In a case of history repeating itself, the studio again found the finished work too morbid and were afraid it would frighten young children, so they released it under their Touchstone subsidiary. Despite rave reviews, Nightmare was not an immediate success, but it has found a cult audience on video. Disney has since fully re-embraced the movie, removing all traces of the old Touchstone logos and prominently slapping the Disney name back on the prints, just as if they had been 100% behind it before it became a hit.

Related: Alfred Eaker’s A Few Odd Yuletide Favs.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Burton] pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination — where the real nightmares are. But through Burton’s eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren’t bad places at all. In fact, they’re quite wonderful.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

6 thoughts on “BORDERLINE WEIRD: THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)”

  1. I’ve grown fond of Nightmare over the years but I remember being very underwhelmed when we took my (then young) son to see it. The main cause of my disappointment was the songs, I didn’t leave humming any of them, though Sally’s mournful love song has become one of my favourites after multiple viewings. If you’re going to invest so much in the musical aspects of your film you do need some bang up tunes though and Nightmare doesn’t really have them.
    You also touched on another aspect of the film which has always troubled me since the first viewing. It’s a problem that it shares, for me, with The Wizard Of Oz, and it’s one of message.
    The first time I watched Oz I was very young and was simply captivated, and I’ll always be grateful for the introduction to the magic of cinema. As I’ve grown older and more cynical the ending bothers me, it seems to me that Dorothy is being told “know your place”. The first time I watched Nightmare I came away with the same feeling. Jack had tried something different, he’d tried to change, to grow, to learn something new. He was captivated by the new land and its traditions, tried to learn more and got shot down, literally.
    As an older viewer there’s something about that message that makes me feel a bit sad.
    Lovely review though, and the Clown With The Tear- Away Face…well, what can I say? That guy deserves a film of his own.

  2. Let me just say: You are an idiot. And don’t take that lightly because I save that comment for the truly mentally challenged.
    -The Soundtrack: Actually its better than most the rap and hip hop I’m sure you like to sing in the shower. It’s catchy, fun, and all around GOOD. The soundtrack is one of the best ones I and anyone else with a brain has heard.
    -The characters: I’m sorry that Oogie Boogie wasn’t the monster you dreamed up as a child, but he’s actually very creatively and amazingly portrayed in this movie. Sally and Jack may be an odd couple and more popular than you can handle, but you failed to notice that the movie was focused on them; never judge a movie by it’s title. As for the other monsters, well, monsters are scary, they aren’t meant to be cute.
    -The Script: Have you ever played connect the dots? Your brain doesn’t seem to be functioning well in that category.

  3. Halfway between Halloween and Christmas seems like the perfect time to revisit this film. I re-read this review, and while I agree with much of the analysis, I think it misses certain things that are truly subversive about the movie and would potentially merit including it on the list.

    For one, it’s absolutely true that a children’s film has a higher bar to clear for weirdness. Fantasy can slay logic more readily, and outlandishness is considered a credit, rather than a debit. So it’s important to remember just how truly out there NIGHTMARE is. For a major studio to bankroll a stop-motion musical in which the creeps and ghouls who are traditionally the villains are shown great affection while they wreak havoc on the most beloved and lucrative holiday of the year shows a tremendous amount of daring. (Consider that Disney rejected “The Brave Little Toaster” because the concept of talking appliances was too “out there.”) The film is loaded with indelible images — Jack walking up the unscrolling hill, Sally sewing herself back together, the revelation of what’s under Oogie Boogie’s burlap exterior, to name three — and the story itself is an enthusiastic undermining of what is commonly considered sweet. There are familiar story beats, to be sure, but more often than not, NIGHTMARE zigs where others zag, and the way it has clung to cult status even while becoming a holiday perennial and a Disney cash cow speaks to its successfully odd sensibility.

    I think it’s also vitally important that a film with Tim Burton DNA makes it onto the list. I went back and looked, and he’s never managed to squeeze in, not with PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, not with BEETLEJUICE, not even with EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. If you want a comprehensive list of all the most outré impulses of the medium of cinema, the sentimental dementedness of Burton demands a spot, and even though he didn’t direct NIGHTMARE, it’s probably the best attempt at capturing his storytelling and visual sensibilities without being tied to someone else’s intellectual property. So many of the things we associate with him — his Gorey-inspired style, his empathy with monsters and other appalling creatures, his collaboration with Danny Elfman — are on peak display here.

    NIGHTMARE isn’t even my favorite Tim Burton film (that’d be ED WOOD), but it’s memorable in ways that are directly related to its weirdness. I think it has a very strong case to be one of the 366.

    1. So far a little bit of background here: I recently asked 366 writers for some opinions on a few of the List Candidates I thought were on the borderline for making the List. No movie was more controversial than Nightmare, with an equal number of “hell yes!” and “hell no!” votes. I do think one movie from Tim Burton needs to make the List to represent his odd oeuvre as a whole, but no single movie really jumps out and demands to take that spot. I think we will have to have an open forum on Burton at some point.

      But what do I know? I’m an idiot, one of the truly mentally challenged, and my brain doesn’t function well in the connect the dots category.

  4. I think Beetlejuice is weird enough, good enough, and Burton-esque enough to represent him on the list. That or Batman Returns, to show how weirdness shines through even in a mainstream superhero movie.

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