The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a rare jewel in the canon of modern Hollywood – a film of pure, uncompromised imagination. It presents us with a world crafted from whole cloth (and plastic and foam…), filled with creatures whose simple motivation is to be good at something. The monsters of Halloween, led by the angular Jack Skellington, want for a change of pace to try to put on their own Christmas. It doesn’t work out. That is the entire plot, but when a movie looks this good and is this much fun to watch, who cares?

This is not a film that cares about the intricacies of plot or character, but instead wants to create a world we haven’t seen before filled with creatures that are so jolly in their nightmarishness that we like them immediately. The Nightmare Before Christmas is directed by Henry Selick in a process known as stop-motion animation. The entire film is literally constructed – every character and set is manufactured by hand and moved individually for each frame. It is a painstaking, time-consuming process, and in this movie the animators have given themselves no shortcuts. Every scene is sumptuously detailed, with numerous characters and lighting effects all moving in concert. The result is a strikingly lifelike place that could never be replicated in live action.

“Halloween Town” is designed with a limited color palette that makes scenes sometimes appear to be completely black & white. The bizarrely proportioned buildings and stark lighting scheme look like a mix of the German expressionism of The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, 1920) and Nosferatu (Murnau, 1921) combined with the Universal horror films of the early 30s. This leads to some stunningly beautiful effects, including the standout sequence where Jack indulges in ennui at the boredom of yet another Halloween. The movie has ten musical numbers written (and, in the case of Jack Skellington, performed) by Danny Elfman. As Jack walks through a stony graveyard, the landscape moves to conform to him as he mopes.

A later visit to Christmas Town reveals a startlingly different visual design, with bright colors and cheerfully designed characters literally dancing across the screen while Jack sings “What’s This” in amazement at this joyous new discovery. The choreography, music, and pure visual beauty of the scene are inspiring and the technical feats behind it amazing. The camera is constantly moving in time with the characters, and the level of detail in both the characters and their environs is truly wondrous.

The movie is based on a story and character designs by Tim Burton, and his name has been placed at the front of the title. That’s not entirely fair, in my estimation. Sure, it looks very much like a Tim Burton film, particularly with its German expressionistic visual obsessions. Jack Skellington is also a decidedly typical Burton protagonist – an interesting but misunderstood loner who ends up being persecuted when all he wants is a little acceptance. But the real meat of the film is in Henry Selick’s direction. He’s a veteran of stop-motion animation, and the invention and energy he brings is remarkable. The camera rarely rests in this movie, and every scene is filled with details that are to be pored over.

Of course, Nightmare is not without issues. While the majority of its voice performances are excellent, Catherine O’Hara as Sally, the patchwork doll who knows that Christmas was not made for monsters, sounds wispy and weak – the performance never really takes hold. The film’s pacing is also erratic: Elfman’s songs are positively delightful and energetic, but the movie is top-loaded with them, so that when they are placed more sparingly near the middle and end, the film seems to
move in fits and starts.

These problems, however, do not mitigate my enthusiasm for The Nightmare Before Christmas. It is one of those rare films truly deserving the title of Genius. It creates a world that consistently amazes and fills it with characters that are recognizably human beneath their skeleton heads and stitched-up eyes. It is a film that demands to be watched again and again, to have every detail examined. It is a sheer joy, and a treasure of American cinema.

About Kent Conrad

To contact Kent Conrad, email