Friday, October 25, 2013

The Nightmare Before Christmas Movie Review

I love a good holiday film, but sadly there tends to be so few good ones out there. As far as Halloween goes, there are only a few suitable holiday movies that I've seen which aren't simply slasher horror flicks. One classic that has withstood the test of time is The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
Halloween Town is a dream world where the citizens are friendly spooks such as deformed monsters, ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires, werewolves, and witches. Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town leads them in a frightful celebration every Halloween, but Jack has grown bored with doing the same thing year after year. While wandering into the forest outside the cemetery, he stumbles upon a portal to "Christmas Town." Jack is so impressed by the feeling and style of Christmas Town that he presents his findings and his somewhat limited understanding of the festivities to Halloween Town. They fail to grasp his meaning and compare everything he says to their idea of Halloween. Jack reluctantly decides to play along and announces that they will take over Christmas. Sally (Catherine O'Hara), a rag doll woman created by the local mad scientist, seems to be the only one who thinks it will end badly. Things do take a turn for the worst when Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) the villainous boogieman sets his creepy sights on abducting Santa Claus.
Tim Burton is frequently, and erroneously, credited for directing Nightmare. Burton was actually the producer and was present only about ten days out of the three years it took to complete the movie. Nightmare was actually directed by Henry Selick who also directed two other amazing stop motion animated movies: James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. Burton did come up with the concept, though. Reportedly, Burton saw a store's Halloween merchandise display being taken down and replaced with a Christmas display, and the juxtaposition sparked his imagination. He then wrote a poem which drew inspiration from the TV Special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas. Burton published and illustrated the poem as a children's book. The concept and design inspiration was all that Burton did, everything else was Selick.
Selick did strive to capture the feel of a Tim Burton movie, and he did such a good job that Burton is often given all the credit. Like many of Burton's films, Nightmare features spindly characters with huge eyes; there are lots of hard angles, spirals, and stripes. This is ironically juxtaposed against the cute and colorful world of Christmas Town. It's like Halloween Town is German Expressionism and Christmas Town is an outrageous Dr. Seuss village. When the two worlds collide, it creates a visually striking setting to tell a pretty funny story with some fun and creative characters. I love it when the Trick-or-Treaters show up at Santa's house.
The stop motion animation in Nightmare is still remarkable even today. Animated movies are often made with computer animation these days. While they are without a doubt fascinating, there's something more physical and organic about good stop motion animation. You can watch a CGI animated movie and even when it's impeccably done, your brain simply recognizes it as being artificially rendered computer images. But with good stop motion you see things that physically exist and that appear to be moving on their own despite how improbable that might be. Nightmare's visual effects and animation at its release was every bit as innovative and revolutionary as Star Wars and Who Framed Roger Rabbit were in their day. Even scenes that look as though they had to be made with computers were, in fact, not. For example, Jack's pet ghost dog, Zero, is transparent and interacts with physical objects. It only makes sense to have Zero be CGI animated, right? In actuality, a complex series of glass and mirrors were used to make the Zero puppet, which was off set, seem to be interacting with other puppets while appearing transparent. The result is amazing.
Part of what makes Nightmare so endearing is the music. Renowned movie composer Danny Elfman provided the score and musical numbers for Nightmare as well as providing the singing voice for Jack. The songs and score are so engaging and memorable that it will keep audiences humming the tunes well after the movie is over. The songs move the story forward and develop the characters while remaining fun to listen to. I hope the Blu-Ray has a sing along version or something. The two songs that have always stuck out to me are "This is Halloween" and "What's This?" They're just so catchy!
 The Nightmare Before Christmas is a cult classic and is still well loved even twenty years after its original release. I can't think of a single time since it hit theaters that merchandise wasn't available somewhere. Walt Disney Pictures has reissued the film annually under their Disney Digital 3-D format since 2006, making it the first stop-motion animated feature to be entirely converted to 3-D. This is the perfect movie for the holiday season, especially since it covers two holidays! Nightmare was originally released under their Touchstone Pictures banner because they thought the film would be too dark and scary for kids; even at PG, I think it might be a bit too scary for kids under the age of 6. But for anyone else it's a classic that shouldn't be missed. I think this is worth owning on Blu-Ray, possibly in 3-D if you can find it.

Here's the "What's This?" song. You can't tell me you don't get caught up in Jack's excitement and wonder.

Disney wanted to make a sequel using computer animation, Burton convinced Disney to drop the idea. "I was always very protective of Nightmare not to do sequels or things of that kind," Burton explained. "You know, 'Jack visits Thanksgiving world' or other kinds of things just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it..." Thank goodness for that! But if there was going to be a sequel, what Holiday would you enjoy seeing Jack encounter? Comment below and tell me all about it!

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