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February 28, 2014

The Nightmare Before Christmas

by Franz Patrick


Nightmare Before Christmas, The (1993)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, has grown weary of doing the same ghoulish activities every Halloween. Walking in the forest all night for a spark of inspiration, he stumbles upon doors that lead to different towns of major holidays. The one that grabs Jack’s attention is the door with a Christmas tree painted on it. Christmas Town is the antithesis of his own. Instead of shrieks, laughter pervades the air, the place’s warm colors reflect the gleeful feeling of giving and good cheer. Jack feels it his duty to introduce Christmas to his friends.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas,” based on the screenplay by Caroline Thompson, is so beautiful to look at because the stop animation is exacting about its grim and delectable details. From the moment the audiences are thrusted into Halloween Town, accompanied by an excellent song, its citizens may look macabre at first glance but upon closer inspection, most of them can pass as adorable–even huggable. For instance, I could not help but be drawn to the pudgy zombie with his eyes sewn shut, cackling witches with warts taking over their noses, and the way the vampires’ tweedy dead fingers move each time they express an emotion or reach a high note.

As much as I admired that the screenplay willingly takes some risks by forcing us to identify with characters that are not classically bonny, I enjoyed it on another level because it has a handful of creepy details. Sally (Catherine O’Hara) is not a happy rag doll created by the controlling Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey). He is desperate to keep her inside his lab to tend to his every need.

Sally, happier when exploring outside and admiring Jack from afar, concocts poisons and sneaks them in her creator’s food, essentially killing him. But this fact is likely go over children and most adults’ heads. Since everybody in town is already dead, the scientist’s deaths are attributed to simple cases of “blacking out.” The idea that death is an unfamiliar concept in Halloween Town is supported by Sally jumping out from a tower and “surviving.”

The picture does not retreat from taking risks as the plot unfolds. There are kidnappings, pounding toys and animals with a hammer, and decapitated heads being packed into Christmas presents. I wished, however, that the villain, Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), a giant sac with a penchant for gambling, were more developed. Naturally, Oogie Boogie and Jack must face each other eventually, but the confrontation is not thrilling or suspenseful enough because the enemy’s endgame is not really clear. One can easily argue that the villain is merely acting upon his nature as do most citizens in town.

Nevertheless, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” directed by Henry Selick, has a uniqueness still unmatched after all these years. Its level of imagination tickled the kid inside me and made me wish Halloween Town were a real place.

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