20 YEARS OF THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Writing my last article on Jurassic Parkwas a pretty daunting task. But writing about The Nightmare Before Christmas has been. . . intimidating to say the least. This piece was suppose to be written several weeks ago, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it until now. As I write this, I am surrounded by all things Nightmare. Posters, snow globes, statutes, and marionettes decorate my room. And the other half of my collection that includes dolls, action figures, and pins are all in boxes in the attic of my house. I own four different versions of the film on home video. As you can tell, this movie means a lot to me. And in order to even scratch the surface as to why, I have to start at the beginning.
It was the year 2001. I was around nine years old at the time living in Orlando, Florida. If one were to describe my interests at nine years old, they wouldn’t stray too far from my now twenty-two year old interests. I was obsessed with Batman, comic books, movies, the Universal Monsters, and the Disney Villains. I had a pretty extensive VHS collection (when those were still around) and, for whatever reason, I decided to pop in the Nightmare Before Christmas.
Actually, it wasn’t for whatever reason. I had recently rented Tim Burton’sEdward Scissorhands from Blockbuster and it changed my life. Its vision, its music, its acting, all seemed to touch me in a way no other movie had before then. For the first time, it wasn’t just a movie that I loved, it was a movie that I became a part of. Almost as if the movie was specifically speaking to me.
Like all things that I am interested in, once I’m hooked, I’m hooked. I did research after research on the films and life of Tim Burton. And the one that just so happened to own at the time was Nightmare.I had had it since it came out on VHS, but I never really went back to it. It was only untill I was nine that I became addicted to it. Now, I watch it twice a year. Then, I watched it nearly every single day. There was a Disney Store and a Hot Topic (don’t judge me) at my local mall and I bought every single piece of merchandise that my allowance could afford. I remember going to the movie section of the Virgin Megastore (RIP) at Downtown Disney and seeing the Special Edition version of the film on VHS. What was so special about it? It not only contained Burton’s first short films (which, at the time, was like finding the Holy Grail or Atlantis to me) but it also contained a making of documentary at the end. A documentary that I would watch over and over with my mouth open on how this movie was made.
For those of you that don’t know, stop-motion might be the most underrated form of animation we have. A painstakingly slow process that involves figures (or “puppets” as they call them in the business) of the characters and sets and moving them inch by inch while taking still photographs of the movement. For example: if I wanted to make a characters‘ arm move upwards, what I would do is move their arm an inch, take a picture, move the arm an inch, take a picture, move an inch, take a picture, and so on and so forth until the action is completed. When the pictures are sped up, it gives the illusion of movement. Stop motion is a medium that isn’t quite live-action, nor is it quite animation. Which, come to think of it, is very much like the film itself.
When people ask me, “is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?” I respond with, “both.” Tim Burton first conceived the idea when he saw a department store switching out its Halloween decorations to its Christmas decorations. It’s such a simple idea that its surprising that no one had thought of it before. Create a world (or worlds) were both the spirit of Halloween and Christmas exist. From there, he wrote a poem that involved a doodle that he had drawn for years. The character of Jack Skelington technically made his introduction in the form of a tiny head on the top of a carrousel that the titular character fromBeetlejuice uses to torment the residents of a house. The poem is about how Jack, the “king of Halloweenland”, has grown bored of his surroundings and his job scaring people. Walking through a forest, he discovers a portal to the world of Christmas. In love with this new found world, he decides to kidnap Santa Claus and take his job. Bringing his version of Christmas to boys and girls around the world. He learns that his version of the holiday, is in fact, the wrong one. And that all he had to do was just be himself and not try to be something he is not.
With a few changes by screenwriter Caroline Thompson, the story of the film is very similar to that of the poem. Disney’s company Touchstone Pictures decided to distribute the film thinking that it would be too scary for kids. Despite his name in the title, Burton was too busy filmingBatman Returns to direct the film. Burton chose stop motion director Henry Sellick to do the job. You may be familiar with Sellicks’ work by confusing it for Burtons’. James And The Giant Peach and Coraline are both his and both are brilliant. Even though Sellick was in the directing chair, Burton worked very closely with his long time collaborator, Danny Elfman on the music.
Elfman is no stranger to song writing. Before doing movie scores, he was the lead singer of the band Oingo Boingo. He has written songs for other Burton films, but none come close to the brilliance of Nightmare. From the unbelievably catchy This Is Halloween to the sad lament of Sally’s Song, the scope of the songs of the film are that of a Broadway musical. I’m actually astonished that Disney hasn’t set up a production on the Great White Way already. Even though he is not the speaking voice of the character( that would belong to Chris Sarandon of The Princess Bride), Danny Elfman is the voice of Jack as far as I’m concerned. Elfman can capture the sadness and torment of the character in one song, and belt his enthusiasm and blind optimism in the next. He embodies the character so well in his voice that he has been linked to the Pumpkin King for the rest of his career. Other than Elfman, you have a number of great singers as well. Catherine O’Hara’s soft voice can tell you so much about Sally with saying so little. And Ken Page’s bombastic tones makes Oogie Boogie a truly threatening villain.
When the film was released in 1993, it was met with moderate success. But has since garnered a huge cult following. So much so that it has become a gold mine of marketing for Disney.
But back to the question that stumped me about writing this article. Why do I love this movie so much? Well, I love its world, its music, its characters, its heart. But most of all I love it because it made me want to be a filmmaker. Like how Star Wars affected some people, The Nightmare Before Christmas gave me the love for the medium that set me on the path that I’m on now.
As I look at the picture of Jack and I that was taken on my recent trip to Disneyland, I can see that same nine year old boy that sat in front of his TV smiling. A long time ago, longer now than it seems. In a place that, perhaps, you’ve seen in your dreams.