8th December: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Image: Disney

The Reel Time Christmas Movie Advent Calendar is exactly what it says on the tin: a classic festive countdown, except instead of chocolate behind the windows it’s my ramblings on a host of Christmas films. In true advent calendar style, films will not be announced in advance, but revealed at 6pm each day. Get involved by shouting abuse at me on Twitter and Facebook, or even just reading and sharing. I hope this can bring a little cheer at the end of a miserable year. Enjoy! 

Year: 1993

Director: Henry Selick

Writers: Caroline Thompson, Tim Burton, Michael McDowell

Starring: Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, Chris Sarandon, Glen Shadix, Ken Page

I’m sorry, but what the fuck is going on? I love, The Nightmare Before Christmas, I really do. But honestly, I have seen the film twice before and I still struggle slightly. Going into this third viewing, if pressed, I could not actually have told you what happens or what the film is about. Yet I can always most vividly remember what it looks and sounds like. That tells you pretty much everything you need to know about The Nightmare Before Christmas

Come the end everything is actually fairly easy to understand as a whole, but there are so many asides and details that confound me when watching this film. For half of it I have no idea what an Oogie or a Boogie is despite their apparently being central to the plot. Is Sally a clairvoyant? Or just very concerned about Jack? There’s a weird professor who continually allows his creation to cook for him despite the fact that she keep trying to poison him. Yet for all this, I am at least a little delighted every time.

There is just something so energising about our deliciously macabre hero, Jack Skellington, prancing around with the lightness and poise of a ballet dancer. The way he gets so excited about these miraculous Christmas traditions one after the other and attempts to repeat them, with hilarious ineptitude, is wonderful. The decision to have Jack not as a ghoulish villain but a sweet-hearted yet inherently spooky holiday impresario is perfect, giving the film a warmth that belies its rotting corpses and severed limbs.

Then there’s the way it looks. My goodness, the way it looks. Despite the fact that Tim Burton did not actually direct or write the screenplay for this film, it feels as if it was pulled straight out of his mind and projected onto the screen. Henry Selick’s spindly stop-motion animation is a medium so perfectly suited to Burton’s aesthetic that it feels as if he missed a trick not doing Beetlejuice this way. The colours, the sunken eyes, the caricatured faces, are all now so recognisable to us from the likes of The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie that it would be easy to forget how fresh and innovative this must have felt in 1993.

There is still something that feels wildly original about The Nightmare Before Christmas, throwing more and more bizarre character designs and undead delights at us as the film wears on. Yet there is a comforting familiarity to it as well. The ideas and aesthetics of Burton’s gothic worlds, supplemented here as always by the marvellous music of Danny Elfman, are such a big part of our cultural consciousness that they no longer feel subversive but welcoming. Whether this makes his films more or less enjoyable is up for debate.

At 76 minutes, The Nightmare Before Christmas is blissfully short, a brief sojourn into a madcap world. Yet this does leave it feeling a bit slight. It is a film where the style is the substance in many ways, for when you strip away the gorgeous shell there’s not a lot left inside. The aforementioned storytelling hiccups hold it back a bit too, but the film remains priority Christmas viewing.

Yes, I said Christmas viewing. It would seem that there is a bit of a debate as to whether The Nightmare Before Christmas should even be a part of a Christmas movie marathon. The nightmare that occurs before Christmas is in fact Halloween, is it not? Surely, even when they try to hijack the festive period, these skeletons and monsters are signifiers of a Halloween film.

Well, yes and no. The film was originally released in the United States just before Halloween; in the UK and elsewhere, however, it didn’t hit cinemas until a year later, and was timed for Christmas with a late November release. This would confirm, it seems, that the film can be viewed at either time. To my mind, it is a film largely occupied by Christmas and the idea of it, and therefore is indeed a Christmas film, just filtered through a Halloween lens.

For more of the ‘what makes a Christmas film’ debate, keep your eyes peeled tomorrow. Let me assure you, if my inclusion of The Nightmare Before Christmas upsets you, then tomorrow you might just have a heart attack.

Where it Ranks

Perhaps not as close to a masterpiece as some critics see it, The Nightmare Before Christmas is nevertheless reliably entertaining and holds within it lots masterful design and marvellous music. It remains a pleasingly singular vision of the holidays. Which holiday that is, is entirely up to you. 

  1. Arthur Christmas
  2. Elf
  3. The Nightmare Before Christmas
  4. Gremlins
  5. Home Alone
  6. Nativity!
  7. The Holiday
  8. The Santa Clause

Andrew Young

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