An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton's stop-motion collaboration with animator Henry

The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton's stop-motion collaboration with animator Henry Selick, together they created a Christmas classic. Photo: Touchstone - Credit: Archant

Movies that tell a good story and have engaging characters provide that all-important re-watch value necessary for a great film. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.

Sally, the love of skeleton Jack's life in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Photo: Touchstone

Sally, the love of skeleton Jack's life in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Photo: Touchstone - Credit: Archant

The Nightmare Before Christmas; dir: Henry Selick with Tim Burton; Starring: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Paul Reubens, Greg Proops, Kerry Katz. Cert: PG (1993)

Although the name of Henry Selick occupies the main director credit, there is no doubt who is the creative force behind this film. It is a full-on Tim Burton production, check Burton’s published production notebooks to see how closely the finished movie replicates Burton’s hand-drawn ideas for characters and landscapes.

Henry Selick was the caretaker director, charged with overseeing the painstaking stop-motion animation pioneered by special effects guru Ray Harryhausen, while Burton took himself off to make two or three live action movies during the extended production process.

If you want to see what a Henry Selick movie looks like then check out his adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic James and the Giant Peach or the equally impressive Coraline.

The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton's stop-motion collaboration with animator Henry

The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton's stop-motion collaboration with animator Henry Selick, together they created a Christmas classic. Photo: Touchstone - Credit: Archant


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Tim Burton revisited this spectacularly retro film landscape for his beautifully dark Corpse Bride but Nightmare Before Christmas has the edge because of its originality.

For the first time Burton has the opportunity to completely realise on screen what he sees in his head. Those dark, twisted landscapes, the vertiginous buildings, those knotted, gnarled trees, the Gothic romance are vividly present in a way that they couldn’t possibly be in a live action film. It’s a visual tour-de-force. You feel completely immersed in this well-realised, topsy turvy world.

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Despite the fact that Burton’s imaginings are inspired by Hammer Horror and Vincent Price movies, Nightmare Before Christmas is very much a Christmas film and the apparent contradiction between Halloween and Christmas provides the backbone of the story.

The bone-thin Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and sung by Danny Elfman), The Pumpkin King, is the central character. He is responsible for making sure each Halloween celebration is darker and more scary than the year before.

The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton's stop-motion collaboration with animator Henry

The Nightmare Before Christmas, director Tim Burton's stop-motion collaboration with animator Henry Selick, together they created a Christmas classic. Photo: Touchstone - Credit: Archant

But, after he stumbles across Christmas Town, he begins to realise that there is more to life (or death in his case) than scaring people. He wants to bring joy, he wants to give the world the best Christmas it has ever had. But, before he can do that, he has kidnap Santa – or Sandy Claws as he thinks he is called.

He aims to enthuse his fellow citizens of Halloween Town but they aren’t quite sure what to make of all this goodwill. The only person willing to support him is his sweetheart Sally, a reanimated rag doll, ward to a twisted wheelchair-bound scientist, Dr Finkelstein.

Jack recruits mischievous trick-or-treaters, Lock, Shock and Barrel to carry out the kidnapping but they betray him to Halloween Town’s own nightmare-villain, the ghoulish, sack-cloth-clad Oogie Boogie.

The film is bursting with invention and Danny Elfman’s catchily Burton and Selick have successfully upbeat score matches Burton and Selick’s vivid imagination. Each song reflects the world-view of the character who is singing and the vocal performances are universally strong.

Burton and Selick have successfully created a world populated with endearing individuals whose idea of providing the world with the best Christmas ever is to fill their stockings with revoltingly ghoulish treats.

The quality of animation is stunning and just draws you in and before long you are unaware that you are watching hand-animated models but are living in an altered reality full of wit and imagination.

The fact that we are treated to a back story about the lives of the various individuals and politics of Halloween Town gives the film some extra added punch. I love the fact that the Mayor, the town’s top political figure, is quite literally two-faced.

Despite it’s immersive warmth, Nightmare Before Christmas is not a sentimental film at all. It displays carefully rationed sentiment at times but is never allowed to become mushy or saccharin. It is the perfect Christmas film for those who hate Christmas films. People like me.

Today Nightmare Before Christmas is better known for its Disney-driven merchandising but for those looking for something refreshingly different then this is the film for you.

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