In The Nightmare Before Christmas, producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick deliver an amiably grimy little world, perfectly content with its own gurgling, soot-stained aesthetic. The monstrous characters smile and sing to one another, as if they’re goth outcasts from a bigger, shinier Disney production. All this adds up to a Christmas movie for the weirdo kids in the back row, a club that definitely counted me as a member. While the normies could devour Christmas Story and Rudolph, we could revel in this oozing, burbling epic, replete with dancing abominations and singing vampires.
The story (by Burton) is part Grinch, part Addams Family, and part Sweeney Todd. We open in Halloween Town, a community that gives every mythic ghoul and goblin a place to call home. Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, singing voice by Danny Elfman) is the Pumpkin King, the town’s mayor and spiritual barometer. He is a tall, long-limbed skeleton, with a round, emotive skull swiveling on top.
As we begin, Jack finds himself, in a deep malaise. He’s listless and frustrated by the limited role he’s forced to permanently play. There has to be something beyond scaring the bejeezus out of everyone. Jack is more than just a bony boogeyman–he wants more.
After a few beats wandering in the forest, Jack stumbles onto a portal. It sends him tumbling into Christmas Town, a snowy, idyllic Whoville where everyone carols, sips cocoa, and gives generously. Jack marvels at the purity spirit. Why, it’s wondrous!
With that, Jack vows to take over the Christmas season and displace its leader, Santa Claus. He will spread Christmas cheer and pull himself out of an emotional funk along the way. As Jack delves into this new obsession, he falls under the concerned eye of Sally (Catherine O’Hara). She’s a Frankenstein-style creature with a heart of gold. Sally watches Jack from afar, and slowly begins to act as his moral compass.
Nightmare actually scores on two fronts: First, Selick’s stop-motion animation is absolutely jaw-dropping. Before Pixar was even a known thing, this film flawlessly delivers a rich, three-dimensional world. This film is comprised of over 100,000 frames, and every one brims with imagination and innovation. Nightmare is one of those rare movies where every watch will yield something new.
On the other front, Elfman’s musical travelogue is marvelous perfection. He channels Stephen Sondheim through Burton’s filter, resulting in songs that are both morbidly funny and relentlessly catchy. So much of the story is delivered through song, Elfman delivers as much credit for this film’s success as Burton and Selick. (Maybe even more, as his vocals for Jack add a Phantom of the Opera theatricality to the experience.)
Put those two triumphs together, and you’ve got an animated film for the ages. The Nightmare Before Christmas was a modest hit when it first arrived, no doubt fueled by back-row misfits like me. Over time, however, this movie has grown in stature, and endures as a holiday classic. (And that could Halloween or Christmas, take your pick.) The reason for this lasting appeal is simple: Deep down, we’re all weird in our own special ways.
76 min. PG. Disney Plus.