In honor of its 24th anniversary, my wife and I had the chance to see The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Tim Burton movie without being an actual Tim Burton movie. It’s produced by Burton, the story and characters are from Burton, but the film itself is directed by Henry Selick.
In a distinctly un-Burton fashion, this macabre auteur gave the directorial reigns over to someone else. Selick, it must be said, is all but a virtual twin of Burton in terms of style and tastes. Selick’s other movies include James and the Giant Peach, Coraline, and Monkeybone.
Selick and Burton together came up with one of most gorgeously and perversely macabre children’s holiday films of that or any other decade. There’s a great inventiveness to the design of Halloween Town and Christmas Land. I loved how the characters such as Jack Skelton (voiced by Chris Sarandon) and Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) move within the space of the frame. Jack has this visually delightful walk that’s a mix between a stalk and a daddy long leg.
The script by Burton, Caroline Thompson, and Michael McDowell is more patchwork than anything. The third act stumbles as it invariably involves a damsel in distress scenario. There’s a visually stunning action sequence as Jacks mounts a rescue but impressive or not it feels tacked on. It doesn’t help matters that the filmmakers toss in a character who’s so ill-conceived and racially insulting that it saps the fun and energy out of the film.
The character is Oogie Boogie (voiced by Ken Page) who is clearly coded as black. His song “Oogie Boogie’s Song” is sung in a New Orlean’s jazz style. His lair has many visual nods to a gambler’s den and is draped in voodoo iconography. It may not be intentional but everything about Oogie Boogie comes off like an embarrassing stereotypical black caricature.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is also hampered by the fact that it wants to be a musical but behaves like an opera. To some extent this makes sense. Much of what works in The Nightmare Before Christmas is the over the top moments. The opening is a grand spectacle of intro narration which leads into Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween”. But then it’s followed by another song and it’s then that we start to see the cracks.
The lyrics tell more than they show and they don’t really sing so much as melodically speak. Danny Elfman has written many spectacular and memorable scores. The Nightmare Before Christmas is not one of them.
It’s safe to say I admire The Nightmare Before Christmas more than I like it. I was never bored nor did I ever find myself actively disliking the movie. I sat in the theater in awe of the images dancing before me. I was in awe of the craftsmanship and attention to detail of the production design. I just didn’t care that much for anything else. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stunning piece of filmmaking but it also happens to be a not very well told story.