The Nightmare Before Christmas (review)

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You Don’t Know Jack

Some fans and critics have suggested that Edward Scissorhands is Tim Burton’s most personal film, that that artistic, outcast lost boy is a stand-in for Burton himself. I suspect this might even be true. But if Edward is Burton’s conscious reflection of himself, then I have a gut feeling that The Nightmare Before Christmas may be the movie closest to Burton’s subconscious. This Edward Gorey phantasm of a film, I think, is Burton’s id come to life.

Stop-motion animated, Nightmare tells a tale of “the holiday worlds of old,” towns that work all year to create the particular holidays to which they are devoted. Jack Skellington (the speaking voice of Chris Sarandon) is the Pumpkin King, ruler of Halloween Town — he looks like a stick bug with a skull head and a suit of skeleton clothes (watch for his cameo in the opening minutes of Burton’s Sleepy Hollow). Jack is bored with Halloween — “I grow so weary of the sound of screams,” Jack sings in one of the fabulously dark and witty songs written by Danny Elfman (who also supplies Jack’s singing voice). And he finds the new challenge he so desperately wants when he stumbles across Christmas Town, where, he notes with delight, “absolutely no one’s dead.” Enthralled by this candyland of happy elves, twinkling lights, and sparkly snow blanketing the ground — a marked contrast from the gray and dismal Halloween Town — Jack decides to take over Christmas this year. Though he enlists the enthusiastic denizens of Halloween Town in this endeavor, things don’t go quite the way Jack hoped they would.

The Nightmare Before Christmas wasn’t actually directed by Burton — Henry Selick had that job, and well done though it is, this is still Burton’s show. Based on a story and characters created by Burton, Nightmare is “like a most improbable dream.” That’s how Jack describes Christmas Town, but it applies to the movie as a whole as well. And just as dreams arise from our subconscious, Nightmare reveals some hidden qualities in Burton’s work that tend to go unacknowledged. Though Burton’s work is primarily seen as highly imaginative but gloomy and melancholy, there’s a tenderness lurking below the surface in his films, and it’s never been so obvious as in Nightmare. From Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the Frankengirl who can sew herself back together when necessary and who secretly loves Jack, and Zero the ghostly dog to the literally two-faced mayor (Glenn Shadix) and the vampires who shade themselves from the dim daylight with umbrellas, the monsters and witches and creatures of Halloween Town are, well, beautifully ugly. The Nightmare Before Christmas is perhaps the first movie that is delightfully horrible, gruesomely sweet and wholesome.

Burton’s subliminal kinship to Jack Skellington perhaps explains the debacle of Mars Attacks!, which even die-hard Burton fans like me just pretend never happened. Could it be that like Jack, Burton wanted to play in a less bleak sandbox? And just as Jack really had no idea what Christmas is about or how to handle it, could it be that Burton didn’t know what to do with a big, cheeky, colorful spoof? Like Jack, Burton is the oddball king of his own little world who’s safe as long as he stays there.

I feel for Burton — I can understand the desire to stretch one’s artistic wings. But just as Jack does a killer job with Halloween, Burton is unparalleled when it comes to dark, surreal movies about misfits. Fans of his work will be happy to continue playing in this small sandbox with him.

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