The Nightmare Before Christmas – Review

Horror, Comedy, Animation, Fantasy, Musical | 76 Min
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Horror Movie Review
  • Release Date: 13 Oct, 1993
  • Director: Henry Selick
  • Actors: Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page, Ed Ivory
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • Parental Guidance: Mild peril, Some scenes maybe scary for young children
  • Writers: Tim Burton, Michael McDowell, Caroline Thompson
  • Producers: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
  • Horror, Comedy, Animation, Fantasy, Musical | 76 Min

Jack Skellington, king of Halloween Town, discovers Christmas Town, but his attempts to bring Christmas to his home causes confusion.

It’s the 1st of December and Christmas is just around the corner. With that in mind, maybe you should cram your festive season full of more than just food. Why not pack in a few horror movies as well? That’s exactly what I am going to do so why not join me? It’s our Awful Advent 25 Days of Christmas Horror feature! I know, it’s a crap title, bear with me. I’ll be reviewing a Christmas themed horror movie for every day of advent. We will finish up with a review for Christmas Day. Let’s kick things off with  an absolute classic. Tim Burton’s Gothic stop motion horror The Nightmare Before Christmas. This is the second Tim Burton movie we have reviewed recently. We just covered Sleepy Hollow as part of our Fall Themed Horror feature.

In my opinion. The Nightmare Before Christmas is the perfect Halloween to Christmas transition movie. Sure, there is the entirety of November in between but we already have you covered for that. We reviewed a whole bunch of Fall Themed Horror movies so go check that out.

Starting on Halloween. The movie strolls through autumn and right into the winter season. It’s very fitting. Most of you have likely seen this movie a million times. Still, I have to build up my back catalogue of reviews so let’s do it. As always, I will give a quick spoiler free breakdown. You can skip it if you like.

The Nightmare Before Christmas – Synopsis

It is Halloween and the residents of Halloween Town are out in the streets celebrating. The Pumpkin King Jack Skellington, voiced by Chris Sarandon, leads festivities. Loved by all of the residents. Jack makes arrangements for the Halloween festival every year. This year, however, Jack has become tired of the same old routine. Walking through the forest, with his dog Zero, he laments his predicament. Jack is jaded and desires something new.

Apparently having been in the forest for some time. Jack comes to six trees. Each of the trees has a symbol representing a certain holiday. Jack opens the door with a Christmas symbol and is pulled in. Arriving in a snow covered, winter wonderland, Jack is awestruck. Confused by what he is seeing, he wanders around the town taking everything in. He eventually comes to a house where he notices a man emerge. Jack, fascinated, watches on before heading back home.

When Jack arrives back in Halloween Town, he tries to explain what he has seen to the residents. He shows them Christmas Trees and presents. He also describes Christmas Town’s leader “Sandy Claws”. The residents are confused. They attempt to relate what Jack is telling them to their own experiences of Halloween. Jack, frustrated, decides to lock himself away in his home so he can research. He wants to find a way to describe Christmas to the Halloween Town residents. Unfortunately, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that Christmas could be improved. Jack believes he is the skeleton to do it. First of all, however, he needs to take the job from “Sandy Claws”.

But is it Horror?

I suppose you could call this cheating a little. The Nightmare Before Christmas is not technically horror. It is, however, filled with horror themes. Some of the characters could have been ripped out of a 30’s Universal Pictures movie. I believe some of the later scenes absolutely show a horror influence, as well. You can’t tell me Oogie Boogie isn’t horror 101 for kids!

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Horror Movie Review

It’s worth noting the fact that Disney thought this would be too scary for children. With this in mind, they released it under their Touchstone Pictures label. While not being proper horror, we are going to let it slide. It is a perfect introduction to horror for young children. The mix of Christmas and Halloween themes makes it ideal for the festive season, as well.

Scary Stop Motion Fantasy

The Nightmare Before Christmas is an animated stop motion musical based on a 1982 Poem by Tim Burton. Burton had wanted to develop a short film of the poem for quite awhile. It wasn’t until 1990 that he actually struck a deal to bring it to the big screen. With Henry Selick set to direct. The movie was greenlit and production started in the summer of 1991. 120 workers filmed and animated on 20 sound stages to bring Nightmare to life. The result was a movie that is tremendously well regarded to this day.

Blending horror with sentiment and good cheer. The Nightmare Before Christmas felt like no other children’s movie around at the time. Taking place predominantly in Halloween Town. The residents are a collection of horrific looking characters with good hearts. Jack Skellington is the leader of the community and everybody looks to him for guidance. Jack is feeling a little lacking in enthusiasm so he sets about stealing Christmas. His vision of Christmas, however, is a little different from most people’s.

Accompanied by Danny Elfman’s tremendous score. It’s a very simple plot but it sets up some absolute visual feasts. Halloween town is a dark, angular place filled with odd characters. Decorated with hues of orange and green, there is a feeling of perpetual autumn. In stark contrast, Christmas Town is bright and snow covered. Highlighted by glowing lights and shades of bright red. It’s impossible not to be impressed by the contrast. This is something that this movie really stands out for. It is a stop motion tour de force.

Incredible Animation

The Nightmare Before Christmas is visually stunning. Featuring a unique Gothic style and eclectic colour palette. Nightmare has inspired both future filmmakers as well as fashion. Hell, the emo trend would have been nothing without this film. Made using models that are comprised of moveable body parts and interchangeable faces. This was a true labour of love. Jack, alone, had over 400 heads. This was no small undertaking. Stop motion animation is, after all, one of the most demanding types.

When making feature length stop motion films, the effort needed is incredible. The tiny character movements accompanied by a single camera shot. Rinse and repeat. Are incredibly taxing on the crew. The result, however, is one of the best looking stop motion movies ever released. Even today, nearly 30 years later, it still looks truly wonderful. Featuring nods to horror movie icons of old. Character designs are fascinating and have become legitimately iconic. The design of the towns is, also, incredible.

Managing to look distinctly different from each other. Halloween Town features sharp angles and oddly leaning buildings. Christmas town, on the other hand, is made with softer lines and rounded structures. The stark difference in colours is instantly captivating. It makes for a remarkable contrast. When Jack enters Christmas Town for the first time it’s hard not to be impressed. Indeed, it is fair to say that the entire “What’s This?” scene is one of the most iconic of all time.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Horror Movie Review

The stop motion animation here was ahead of its time. Fantastically smooth, the locations were incredibly well lit and impressively detailed. Characters are wonderfully expressive and the movement is never jerky or awkward. Due to the musical nature of the movie. Many of the scenes feature complicated choreography. It’s hard not to appreciate the scope of these parts. Later scenes featuring Jack and the villainous Oogie Boogie are particularly noteworthy. It is brilliantly well done and still one of the best examples of the genre.

Decent Voice Acting and Hilarious

The Nightmare Before Christmas is headed up by some excellent voice performances. We recently reviewed the fantastic Fright Night starring Chris Sarandon. Well, he is back here as the voice of Jack. I absolutely love his performance. It is perfectly fitting for the charismatic Pumpkin King. Needing to express different emotions with just his voice. Jack experiences wonder, amazement, regret and everything in between. It definitely can’t be easy. Sarandon nails it wonderfully, however. His voice performance makes Jack an even easier character to like.

There is a fantastic cast of side characters in Nightmare and they are voiced really well. Particular note goes to the late Glenn Shadix as the Mayor of Halloween Town. A fantastic actor, his character doesn’t feature heavily but many of his lines are very memorable. Danny Elfman joins in every now and then as a few side characters. He has impressive vocal range that is most apparently on show as The Clown With The Tearaway Face. William Hickey has an understated part as Dr. Finkelstein. Ken Page plays the sinister Oogie Boogie. His booming voice lends itself perfectly to the fiendish character.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a genuinely hilarious film. Featuring subtle jokes aimed at adults as well as stuff purely to make the kids laugh. It is full of wonderful little touches that keep you chuckling throughout. The humour is always well spirited. Nightmare never feels a need to go to the bottom of the barrel to provoke a laugh. It’s a simple thing but Jack Skellington pricking his finger on a needle is a great example. It is ridiculous but always makes me laugh. These small bits of attention to detail are much appreciated and keep the mood light.

The Danny Elfman Show

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical feast. Featuring some of the best songs ever recorded for an animated movie. You will be humming these tunes for the rest of your life. Danny Elfman really made this film his own. Instantly recognisable classics like “This is Halloween”, “What’s This?” and “Making Christmas” stand out. The entire sound track is fantastic, however. Danny Elfman’s talents are entirely on show here and I think he feels a deep connection with the project. Henry Selick recently said that if you asked Danny he would claim it is his film. It’s a fair statement as, without his score, Nightmare just wouldn’t have the character it does. He is instrumental in its success.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Horror Movie Review

A fact that is somewhat bewildering, given what we know now. This soundtrack was initially received rather negatively. Elfman talked about how Disney simply didn’t understand his vision. This was a score that was distinctly different from anything at the time. The bouncy, dark tinged tracks were nothing like what you would expect from Disney. Luckily, despite the trepidation, they allowed him to exercise creative freedom. The results have endured the test of time. This is down, in no small part, to Elfman’s understanding of great music.

It is worth pointing out the efforts of the cast, as well. Catherine O’Hara, Ken Page, Paul Reubens and all of the Halloween Town cast contribute. It is Elfman who, once again, steals the show as Jack Skellington himself. Whether Chris Sarandon can sing or not, I am not sure. Maybe Elfman just felt a connection with Jack as he sang all of Jack’s songs. He does a really decent job. The difference between his voice and Sarandon’s is really not that noticeable. Elfman actually wanted to voice Jack throughout the movie. It has been said that he was quite disappointed when he wasn’t asked. In fairness, that is understandable. With all being said. The Nightmare Before Christmas is as much Danny Elfman’s movie as anyone else’s.

Tim Burton’s Vision

The Nightmare Before Christmas is based on Burton’s poem from 1982. An almost Dr Seuss like piece of work, Burton wrote the poem while working at Disney. The entire thing is pretty long and has appeared in various illustrated forms. It tells the story of Jack Skellington and his attempt to steal Christmas. Despite the nature of the work, it is a pretty extensive tale. It manages to basically outline the entire plot of the film. When you realise that this story comes from a poem. It’s something of a surprise that Nightmare manages to follow it so closely.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Horror Movie Review

Taking something that is a basically a collection of verses. Then turning it into a feature length movie is no mean feat. The fact that it is done so well is incredibly impressive. Henry Selick has said that this was essentially Tim Burton’s egg. Selick sat on it to make it hatch. That is true. The Nightmare Before Christmas is, very much, Burton’s vision. He laid out the story, the theme and the look of some of the characters.

With regards to how the movie should appear visually. The outline of Burton’s style was there. Burton’s movies have a very distinct feel. It was, however, up to someone else to take the story, the illustrations and Burton’s style and bring it to life. That person was director Henry Selick.

Henry Selick’s Baby

Despite Burton’s vision, The Nightmare Before Christmas is Henry Selick’s baby. It feels like a distinctly Selick film. Take the similar themed Coraline for example. The mood and atmosphere is unmistakeable. Selick’s style is equally as dark as Burton’s. It just so happens that the two meshed perfectly. It is almost impossible to imagine anyone doing a better job of bring this film to life. He took Burton’s story and characters and injected them with his own imitable style.

With this in mind, it is somewhat sad that everyone sees Nightmare as a Burton movie. Apparently Burton spent only around 8 days on set. He was busy filming other movies at the time and could not involve himself heavily in production. I am sure anyone who has worked in movies would attest. 8 days out of a year-plus long production is nothing. It’s almost the bear minimum he could do to get a producer credit.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) Horror Movie Review

This being said. It’s no surprise that Burton has never put out another movie that feels like Nightmare. Sure, some people would argue Corpse Bride is similar. I would disagree. Outside of the familiar themes they feel very different. The Nightmare Before Christmas is very much Selick’s movie. He deserves most of the credit for creating one of the best stop motion movies of all time. Obviously he proved it is no fluke. Movies like James and the Giant Peach and the aforementioned Coraline were huge. They were both critically and commercially well received. He is an incredible director.

Are There Any Negatives?

As someone that has watched The Nightmare Before Christmas a silly number of times. I can point out a few things that I have noticed over the years. Firstly, the middle of the movie sags a little. It’s a bit slow moving and can get a little boring. This is an ultra thin story and it has to be padded out a bit. I could live without Sally’s song. It causes a big tonal shift and I think it really changes the mood for the worse. I am also not a big fan of Catherine O’Hara’s voice work for Sally. It feels forced and a bit unnatural. Lock, Shock and Barrel are pretty lacklustre characters. I also don’t particularly like the song “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these aren’t significant at all. This is an incredible movie, one of the best kid’s horrors of all time. The above issues are just personal nit-picks. They shouldn’t impact your enjoyment of the movie at all. They are just things I have noticed. The Nightmare Before Christmas is essential Xmas horror viewing.

Is it a Knockout?

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Gothic stop motion horror fantasy directed by Henry Selick. Based on a poem written by Tim Burton, Nightmare is a fun story that acts a perfect horror entry point for children. Not too scary, the movie features stunning stop motion animation. Despite being nearly 30 years old, it still holds up today as one of the best examples of the genre.

Often hilarious and full of iconic songs courtesy of frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman. You will be humming these tunes long after the movie has ended. Excellent voice acting and a fun cast of horror characters keep you engaged. The story sags a little in the middle but that doesn't change the fact that this is one of the best animated movies of all time. Absolutely perfect for the festive season. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a must watch for horror fans of all ages.

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