NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)
Burton had found the inspiration for
the story of The Nightmare Before
Christmas when he saw a Halloween
display in a store being replaced by
a Christmas one, and the juxtaposition
between Burton's two favourite holidays
seemed perfect for a stop-motion animated
fantasy. Since he had come up with the
idea for the film while he was working
at Disney, they owned the rights. Initially
he asked if he could buy the rights
back from them, but Disney wanted to
bring the director back into the fold
so only agreed to let him make the film
if he kept it at the studio.
Although Burton chose not to direct
(turning directorial duties over to
his old friend Henry
Selick), the finished film would
have his name (and his style) stamped
all over it. Burton's original poem
(which only featured three clear characters
- Jack Skellington, his dog Zero and
Santa Claus) was greatly expanded by
screenwriter Caroline Thompson and composer
Danny Elfman, who would write a number
of songs to help the story along. In
fact, nearly all the major plot points
are told through song, so Thompson's
job was to essentially fill in the blanks
between the musical numbers.
A company called Skellington productions
was formed in 1990 to make the film.
The painstaking stop-motion process
(I won't bother explaining the process
here) took place in San Francisco. Nightmare
would be the first stop-motion animated
feature film (not counting films that
mixed stop-motion and live action) and
it would be the most advanced use of
the animation technique to that date.
It would be three years of hard work
before the film was ready for release.
The film would mark the first time Burton
himself was used as a marketing tool,
with his name above the title. Despite
Disney's newfound support for Burton,
they still found the project morbid
compared to their usual fare and, when
it was given a PG rating, decided to
release it under their Touchstone banner
"A long time ago, longer now than
it seems, in a place perhaps you've
seen in your dreams . . ." So begins
the story of Jack Skellington - the
Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. Patrick
Stewart did the original narration
for the opening (which can be heard
on the soundtrack album) but was replaced
Ivory (the voice of Santa) because
Stewart's voice was supposedly too recognisable.
classic Burtonesque outsider fashion,
Jack longs to try something different
from running Halloween. He gets his
wish when he uncovers a doorway in a
tree to a place called Christmas Town.
The other doorways go to Easter, Thanksgiving,
Fourth of July (it's fun to imagine
what Burton would have done with an
insanely patriotic land), Valentine's
Day and St. Patrick's Day.
However, it's Christmas that lures Jack
in. He decides to take over Halloween
from Santa and uses every means at his
disposal to try and ensure it’ll
be a success, but of course he has totally
the wrong ideas. There isn't much more
to it than that and even by Burton's
standards the narrative is weak.
example, it takes over a month for Lock,
Shock and Barrel to return after Jack
orders them to kidnap the “Sandy
Claws” (there’s an amusing
scene where they bring a terrified Easter
Bunny back by mistake), while the final
reversal of Jack failing at Christmas
and realising he should stick to what
he knows seems to happen too quickly.
Despite the slight plot, the design
of the characters and the charming songs
are enough to maintain the viewer's
interest throughout. And the ending,
where Jack finally notices Sally the
Ragdoll's love for him, is quite touching.
The character animation and voice talent
are both top notch. Jack is wonderfully
expressive for a skeleton, and Chris
Sarandon's voice is well suited
to his spoken dialogue (Elfman would,
of course, provide his amazing singing
voice). Sally the Ragdoll is a very
appealing heroine, and her patchwork
costume recalls the pieced-together
attire of Catwoman. Catherine O'Hara
does a wonderful acting job and gives
Sally a beautiful singing voice.
the supporting cast,
Ken Page is great fun as the film's
villain, Oogie Boogie, who is essentially
a sack full of bugs. His character was
clearly influenced by Cab
Calloway, of whom Elfman was a fan.
The distinctive voice of William
Hickey is a perfect match for Dr.
Finkelstein. Burton regulars fill out
many of the supporting roles, such as
Glenn Shadix as the Mayor of Halloween
Town and Paul Reubens as Lock.
Turning to the minor characters, Zero
falls into the tradition of loveable
Burton mutts - his nose even resembles
a pumpkin. There are also some more
familiar ghoulish characters, such as
Mr. Hyde (three of them, two of which
pop out of the bigger one's hat) and
the Devil himself, who seems to have
been demoted in Halloween Town.
Henry Selick obviously had a great deal
of input on Burton's vision, and many
of the images in the final film are
closer to his style than Burton's. Though
Selick's contribution was played down
by many (indeed some people think to this day that
Burton actually directed the film) it
is undoubtedly as much his film as Burton's.
The use of black light in Oogie Boogie's
lair marks a departure from Burton's
usual style and may be one of the areas
that Selick influenced.
design of the film is fabulous; from
the ghoulish Halloween Town (which even
has a pumpkin for a sun) to the Rankin/Bass
style Christmas Town to the slightly
bland real world. Nearly every frame
is teeming with wonderful character
and architectural detail.
that was abandoned was the denizens
of Halloween Town playing ice hockey
with Burton's severed head. The Clown
with a tearaway face was also scarier
in his early incarnation. Behemoth is
based on Tor Johnson, the star of several
Ed Wood films.
The fact that so many
of the characters have either missing
or sewn-shut eyes may be a reaction
to Burton's unhappiness with having
to draw cute animal eyes back when he
was working at Disney.
In some ways the whole film could be
seen as a visual effect, but the animation
process is for the most part invisible,
allowing the viewer to focus on the
characters. There were 227 puppets used
in total in the film. The puppets were
incredibly detailed, and Oogie Boogie
was one of the biggest ever made. Replacement
heads were used for all the different
facial expressions. Both hand drawn
animation and some minor computer effects
subtly enhanced the stop motion animation.
Elfman's numerous songs serve the plot
as well as being hummable. Highlights
include the wonderfully ghoulish opening
number "This is Halloween",
the upbeat and catchy "What's This?"
and the hauntingly beautiful "Sally's
Song". The score is also very effective
as a bridge between the songs. Other Disney films could certainly
learn from how well the songs are integrated
Nightmare is clearly influenced not
only by Dr.
Seuss's “How The Grinch Stole
Christmas” (Seuss was Burton's
favourite children's author) but also
the Rankin/Bass stop motion Christmas
specials like Rudolph
the Red Nosed Reindeer. Burton wanted
to create an updated version of those
holiday classics. Visually, the silent
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also influenced
In contrast to previous Burton films,
where the main character's pleas for
acceptance are usually met with violent
rejection, Nightmare has a
much more optimistic conclusion. While
it's true that Jack's attempt to take
over Christmas is a failure, it simply
teaches him to be happy doing what he's
The film could be seen as the conclusion
of Burton's “Christmas outsiders”
trilogy. Edward Scissorhands was about longing to belong and being
rejected, Batman Returns was
about vengeful anger at that rejection,
while Nightmare is about acceptance
of who you are. The lesson is: be true
Overall, this is certainly not your
standard Disney animation. While some
parents thought it was too scary, it's
certainly no worse than any Brothers
Grimm tale. And it all ends happily. Nightmare continues Burton's
affection for characters that are usually
depicted as monsters in films like King
Kong, Frankenstein and Creature
From the Black Lagoon. As Burton
says in “The Film The Art The
Vision” book for Nightmare: "I
feel for these characters. They're not
bad; people are torturing them, attacking
some problems with pacing, as already
mentioned. But for the most part the
editing keeps things fun and moving
fast. It's also possible that the film
might have had more emotion and humour
if Burton had directed, but Selick does
a great job nonetheless.
When it was released, the film received
mostly positive reviews. It even won
praise from some critics who had previously
been left cold by Burton's films, such
as Roger Ebert. It seemed that many
critics were better able to accept Burton's
twisted vision in animation form rather
than live action. Indeed, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times wrote, "Burton has a taste for off-center, gruesome comedy - so off-putting when attached to real people, as it was in Batman Returns - but perfectly suited to these characters".
Some critics did complain that
the songs were unmemorable, but this
was likely a result of them not fitting
into the pop genre that recent Disney
films had adopted for their soundtracks.
Nightmare was given an initial
limited release by Disney and performed
very well. When it expanded to more
theaters, it continued to perform well
without becoming the blockbuster the
studio perhaps hoped for. Eventually
it made over $50 million in the U.S.
Elfman was once again unfairly ignored
at the Oscars, but it was nominated
for the best Visual Effects award (though
of course it had no chance up against Jurassic
There was some controversy over how
much credit Burton actually deserved
for the finished film. While Burton
had nothing but praise for Selick and
his crew, stating in the official book
for the film that they had made it "more
beautiful than I imagined it would be",
many still overlooked Selick's contribution
as director. As Selick said in an interview
for the Projections book series, "I'm more upset by how much credit
Tim Burton received . . . I think his
contributions cannot be denied. But
I was the guy who made the film for
close on three years of my life."
Few could have guessed that the film's
modest initial success would gradually
snowball into a genuine phenomenon.
Merchandise for the film, which had
been very scarce in '93, began to spring
up all over the place, thanks to stores
Topic. The film became an annual
Halloween attraction at Disney's El
Capitan Theater in L.A. and a generation
of kids who hadn't even been born when
it was first released discovered it
on TV and DVD.
Of all the films Burton
has been involved with that are based
on his own ideas, Nightmare is now the most famous and popular,
especially among young people. There
was even a 3D version of the film released
in October 2006. It has become a perennial classic just like the holiday films Burton grew up on.
||In 1994, Burton produced the film Cabin Boy. Mostly forgotten now, it's actually a pretty entertaining odd little fantasy movie. It stars Chris Elliot as the "fancy lad" who mistakenly gets on a boat and encounters salty fishermen, a shark/human hybrid, giants and David Letterman asking him "Would you like to buy a monkey?" (a line Letterman riffed on when he hosted the Oscars the next year).
The film has a similar freewheeling structure to Burton's own Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, though without the same level of wit.
Another connection is that the score is by longtime Elfman orchestrator, Steve Bartek. Despite the Burton connections, the film has its own colorfully surreal style.
||As with Batman Forever, Burton actually had little to do with the film, other than lending his name. The film lacks the originality and vision that Burton would have brought if he had directed it. However, it's still a fun movie and has some wonderfully delirious visuals sprinkled throughout, which makes it worth seeking out for those who enjoy "dumb" comedies.
contrast to the poor reception for
Cabin Boy, 1994 would also see
the release of Burton's most critically
acclaimed film to date, ironically based
on the life of a director many considered
the worst in Hollywood history . . .
CHAPTER: BATMAN RETURNS
CHAPTER: ED WOOD