The Nightmare Before Christmas
1993, PG, 75 min. Directed by Henry Selick. Voices by Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, Paul Reubens, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 29, 1993
When people say that The Nightmare Before Christmas looks quite unlike anything they’ve ever seen before, they’re not just joking or copping out. The overall appearance of this Tim Burton- and Denise Di Novi-produced animated feature has few visual antecedents - Lotte Reiniger’s stop-motion delicacies (pre-eminently The Adventures of Prince Achmed) come to mind and, perhaps, the expressionistic lines of an artist like Edvard Munch. With painstaking stop-motion photography, director Selick and his team have created a fluid universe that is not so much a cartoon world as a pretend world. These fabricated characters, though unmistakably non-human, seem very much alive. Their body parts resemble organic objects, their movements follow earthbound laws of physics. More than anything else what these characters look like to me, are rotoscoped vegetables - deluxe, two-dimensional Mr. Potato Heads. Should that description sound too dismissive, let me caution that you will also find yourself reveling in the sheer majesty of these images. And for that experience alone, the movie is a must-see. Unfortunately, there is little else to recommend Nightmare. The story is slight and can best be described as The Grinch Who Stole Christmas in reverse. Perhaps this lack of narrative inspiration would be less disappointing if the screenplay was not pennned by the (’til now) brilliant Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Secret Garden, The Addams Family, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey). Granted, it was based on a story idea and characters invented by Burton but still - a movie needs to be more than simply characters and an idea. What plot there is, is conveyed totally through songs which are all composed and primarily performed by Danny Elfman. Tastes will vary in this area; I found the songs dull and unmemorable, nothing you could hum along to or do your housework by. The songs are very wordy (as is appropriate to a storytelling device), and they’re mostly delivered as soliloquies. Elfman’s vocal range make him sound something like Rex Harrison talk/singing all those dramatic showtunes. (Admittedly, Sexy Rexy’s singing has its partisans. I’m, obviously, not one of them.) Then there’s the whole thorny question of intended audience. Nightmare’s macabre humor is very adult, yet the storytelling is woefully simplistic. The songs’ speechifying is likely to zing right past the kiddies, and the aspects that they do understand is likely to be of the monsters under the bed variety - the truly deep-seated scary stuff. With tie-ins to both Halloween and Christmas, this one’s likely to linger in the theatres a while. And while I’d like to encourage the continuance of this sort of animation, I’d like to caution about this type of cast-off storytelling.