Nightmare Before Christmas, The (United States, 2003)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I was a child, one of the reasons I enjoyed the Christmas season so much was the annual arrival of those endlessly-repeated television specials: Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus. Tim Burton must remember those programs too, because, in his own inimitable way, he has paid homage to them in this most twisted of holiday fairy tales, The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The scene is Halloween Town where, not surprisingly, October 31 is the biggest night of the year. However, after arranging and carrying out his most devilish Halloween yet, Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon when speaking, Danny Elfman when singing) is suffering the post-holiday blues. He craves something different in his life, something that can't be found in Halloween Town. Wandering out in a forest, he discovers gateways to different holidays, and finds his way to Christmas Town. There, he is captivated by the lights, the festivity, and the joy. He returns home to tell everyone that this year, Halloween Town is going to celebrate Christmas. To make things complete, he, Jack Skellington, will replace "Sandy Claws" on his yearly December 25 ride, delivering presents and spreading good cheer. Everyone is enthused by the idea except Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara), who has a premonition of doom if Jack goes through with his plans.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a visual splendor. Done on the cheap, this could have been a gimmicky, unsatisfying experience, but, as the result of considerable time and effort, it is an unqualified success. All of the figures move smoothly and naturally, and the attention to detail is exquisite. We are given a group of cleverly-fashioned characters that look like refugees from Edward Gorey's sketchbook.

The film is designed for all but the youngest children, some of whom might be frightened by the bizarre inhabitants of Halloween Town. On its surface, the story is relatively straightforward, enabling younger viewers to enjoy the movie without becoming lost or bored. However, the film works on a second level, as well. The most deft humor is aimed at adults. Even those who aren't taken in by the charming tale or likable characters will be enthralled by the world Tim Burton and director Henry Selick have created. It is, quite frankly, an amazing achievement.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is How the Grinch Stole Christmas thrown into reverse (although clearly the Dr. Seuss tale had a part in formulating some of the images of Christmas Town). While the Grinch made Christmas better by trying to destroy it, Jack Skellington ruins the holiday by trying to improve it. But don't worry -- everything turns out all right in the end. After all, this is a family film.

The blandness of Danny Elfman's songs represents The Nightmare Before Christmas' most serious failing. With the exception of one or two, these tunes are uniformly unmemorable. They certainly lack the "hummability" of Alan Menken's work for Disney's recent animated releases. Nothing in Nightmare is close to "Be Our Guest" (Beauty and the Beast) or "Friend Like Me" (Aladdin).

The Nightmare Before Christmas has something to offer just about everyone. For the kids, it's a fantasy celebrating two holidays. For the adults, it's an opportunity to experience some light entertainment while marvelling at how adept Hollywood has become at these techniques. There are songs (even if they aren't nearly as noteworthy as they should be), laughs, and a little romance. In short, The Nightmare Before Christmas does what it intends to: entertain.

Nightmare Before Christmas, The (United States, 2003)

Run Time: 1:15
U.S. Release Date: 2003-10-22
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1