Directed by: Henry Selick
Stars: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara
Released: 29 October 1993
No spoilers to be found here!
If I’m not mistaken, and I very well could be, this is the movie that popularized the stop-motion family movies with the darker edge. For that I have to applaud it, because I really like movies like Coraline, ParaNorman and the like. Not many movies can scratch that itch I have for the creepy gothic stuff, but these movies always seem to do it for me. But I never did watch this first piece, so these are my thoughts on this supposed holiday classic.
This movie takes place in Halloween Town, a land where all monsters live their day-to-day lives preparing for the annual Halloween. During the holiday they all invade the land of the humans and scare them, as is tradition. Jack Skellington, the person responsible for planning each year’s Halloween, starts to become bored with it and wonders if there is nothing else to life than scaring people. Jack soon learns of Christmas and wants to celebrate it with his friends in Halloween Town.
The story isn’t however the focus of the movie, it’s all about the stop-motion animation and it’s distinct style. I wasn’t around when this movie came out, so I don’t really know much about the impact it had, but I can safely say that it paved the way for a lot of future stop-motion movies. And the animation in this movie is truly spectacular. Every character seem to be uniquely created with a lot of imagination. Even though I have seen films with similar styles, like the aforementioned Coraline, this movie still stands on it’s own. All the settings look wonderfully alive and really fit with the movie’s theme. The animation of the characters looks handmade, which is great, and lends to the movie’s handcrafted feel.
The style also lends itself very well to the world they have created within the film, which is something special. I like the concept of a land only for the monsters, where they prepare for Halloween. The team goes all out with the setting and create a really creepy place, but still family friendly. But it’s not just a Halloween-movie or a Christmas-movie, it’s both. The way they incorporated both the holidays in a single world is very creative, but I won’t give away exactly how they do it. It is something I don’t think I’ve seen before, and I’m really happy with what I saw.
Another good aspect of the movie is the music by Danny Elfman (who also does some of the singing voices). The music itself isn’t groundbreaking, it is your usual gothic Danny Elfman-music from Tim Burton movies. But the way they present the music is very well executed, since they have big musical numbers with all the characters dancing and singing to it. Since the biggest strength of the movie is it’s visuals, it looks fantastic when all the monsters are moving to good music. And they don’t just waste time with them, they incorporate the musicals in the narrative, much like the best Disney movies does. There are plenty of them throughout the movie, and combined with the wonderful animation, they become one of the most memorable parts of the movie.
This movie bears some resemblance with the first Toy Story movie. Both came out in the early-to-middle 90:s and both were revolutionary for their styles. But where Toy Story became celebrated for it’s characters and story as well as it’s visual style, The Nightmare Before Christmas falls a bit short. The story isn’t bad per say, but it feels a bit like an afterthought. They created this wonderful art style and crafted a beautiful world to accompany it. But when time came to actually write the script, they just took a few classic plot points and where happy with it.
The problems with the story also carry over onto it’s characters. Jack Skellington isn’t a badly written character, but he isn’t original. He is your typical protagonist who wants something more in life, but can’t see the grand scheme of things. And yes, he develops in exactly the way you think he will. Nothing of this is bad, but since it’s so similar to other written characters, it becomes a problem with the movie. I should also mention Sally, who plays a young woman who befriends Jack. But the same problem exists with her character, you have seen it before, and since she is such a small part of the movie, you will not remember her for a long time after watching. And they really are the only characters of note, there are almost no other ones with a significant role.
This whole movie feels like an experiment for it’s art style, as evident by it’s run time, which only is 76 minutes. Of course the story and characters weren’t the teams biggest concern when making the movie, but I still think it brings the movie down a bit. What if Pixar when making Toy Story thought “lets just copy some old story-line and some cookie-cutter characters?”. Sure, the movie would still be famous because of it’s art style, but it wouldn’t become the classic it is considered as today.
The Nightmare Before Christmas became famous because of it’s innovative visual style and well executed stop-motion technique. And all of these aspects of the movie are indeed great, everything is done with much creativity and competence. The world they have created is truly something special and the musical numbers are great. The movie is worth watching based on all these points alone, but where the movie stumbles is almost everywhere else. The story is just passable, the characters are only good enough. They are never directly bad, but it is neither something you will remember for a long time after watching the movie. I have a hard time critiquing this movie since I can compare it to similar, newer movies that are arguably better. If I saw this movie when it came out in 1993, I would probably rate it higher then I will now. In retrospect, the biggest strength of The Nightmare Before Christmas is that it popularized the stop-motion genre and paved the way for better movies, like Coraline and ParaNorman. And when the best part of a movie isn’t even part of the movie, I can’t say that it was more than just above average.