Jack Skellington If it were a normal holiday animated film, “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas” would be an entertaining, amusing, darker-than-usual offering indicating that Disney was willing to deviate slightly from its tried-and-true family-fare formula. But the dazzling techniques employed here create a striking look that has never been seen in such sustained form before, making this a unique curio that will appeal to kids and film enthusiasts alike. This explains its presence in the New York Film Festival, where the very brief feature had its world premiere the weekend of Oct. 9.
Calling upon several of the same key talents he has worked with on his live-action features, along with innovative stop-motion director Henry Selick, Burton has conceived a film that is definitely of a piece with his other work, but one step to the side. Unlike normal animation, this has a fully dimensional look, as fabulously creative model figures move within constructed sets in concert with animated effects, all to the rhythm of Danny Elfman’s melodious, rambunctious score.
A wonderfully weird opening number introduces the inhabitants of Halloweentown, a demented community entirely devoted to annually inventing freshly frightening ways of scaring the bejesus out of people. However, the leading citizen, the spindly, elegant Jack Skellington, or the Pumpkin King, has tired of the old routine. On a brooding stroll through the forest, he comes upon a tree with a door to Christmastown, where he finds the radiant joys of Santa’s workers in frenzied preparation for their own upcoming holiday.
Jack lays plans to kidnap Santa Claus and himself become the overlord of Christmas. In perhaps the film’s outstanding sequence, the spidery Jack, bedecked in beard and red outfit, takes to the night skies drawn by three reindeer skeletons, and proceeds to distribute presents that terrify their recipients — a shrunken head, a snake that devours a Christmas tree, and so on.
For his part, Santa is nearly dined upon by Halloweentown’s evil Oogie Boogie man, but Jack has a change of heart that rescues Christmas’ rightful overseer and reasserts the proper commission of the holidays in an ending that is about the only thoroughly conventional aspect of the film.
The dark Halloweentown instantly recalls “Beetlejuice” and the “Batman” entries, as they are replete with spiders, bats, killing machines, strange vehicles and no end of ugly creatures who look like the extended family of the Penguin. Jack himself is an exceptional creation, a skeleton in formal attire with a hollowed-out baseball for a head, a cultivated man with a hungry soul and an impeccable way with words.
The backgrounds and sets look like surreal takeoffs on 19th-century engravings and etchings, and the characters inhabiting them are endlessly inventive, as in a Bosch painting. The film’s visual style has its basis in initial sketches Burton did more than a decade ago when he formulated the project while working as an animation trainee and assistant at Disney. The studio was clearly not ready at that time for this venturesome a departure from its norm.
But neither did the means then exist to produce a result this technically perfect.
In production for more than two years, the film relied upon a painstaking stop-motion technique that involved animating each movement of each figure frame-by-frame, and took about a week to shoot a minute’s worth of film. “Performances” were thus created by animators actually on the set.
For those with an aversion to conventional animation, this represents something refreshingly different. The many transitions from one bizarre scene to another, and one musical interlude to the next, are handled seamlessly. There are precious few cloying or boring moments, and it moves along at a breathless clip, propelled in great measure by Elfman’s superb score, which includes 10 songs. Attitude behind the story’s telling is iconoclastic and a bit twisted, but not at all subversive. Hats off to the more than 120 animators, technicians and other hands whose combined efforts have produced a decidedly singular vision.