If it were a normal holiday animated film, “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’s never been seen in such sustained form, 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 brief feature has its world premiere Saturday night.
Calling upon several of the same key talents he’s 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 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 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.
For those with an aversion to conventional animation, this represents something refreshingly different. 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 others whose combined efforts produced a decidedly singular vision.