The iconic animated feature turns 25 today, and as it’s such a significant part of my childhood, it’s an extra special occasion for me. But why has it resonated with audiences for so long?
Back in October 1993, Disney took a punt on a pet project of an ex-employee of their animation department – some guy called Tim Burton – and agreed to distribute a stop-motion animated feature directed by feature newbie Henry Selick. The film’s story? About the king of Halloween stumbling on Christmas by accident and deciding he wants to give it a go.
On paper it sounds like a very risky venture: for Disney’s core audience (i.e. children), it could be perhaps too scary, and with Burton’s imagination to date spawning more adult material with his Batman adaptations and Beetlejuice fresh in the memory Disney’s input was tentative at best. They ended up releasing Nightmare through Touchstone Pictures, their channel for more low-key, “grown up” pictures and essentially left the film to fend for itself.
The rest from there is history: the film of course found its audience and became a great success, and an instant classic over the Halloween/Christmas holidays.
But why is The Nightmare Before Christmas such an enduring success?
For a film as unconventional in story and characters as Nightmare, the film had a very traditional origin. As mentioned above the film was born from the imagination of Tim Burton, who had written a poem from which the movie would be born. As a result the film and story has a timeless quality to it, and the storytelling is reminiscent of a classic children’s storybook.
Director Henry Selick, while a newcomer to the world of full-length animated features, was no stranger to animation before jumping aboard. The Nightmare Before Christmas made Selick’s name in animation, and allowed him to establish a style that has proven instantly recognisable ever since.
Stop-motion animation is a painstaking method of filmmaking, but where techniques such as computer generated animation can look very dated very quickly, there’s something about stop-motion done right that looks evergreen, even after a quarter of a century. The Nightmare Before Christmas could be made today and it would struggle to look as fresh as it does here.
The film’s visuals aren’t the only thing that is particularly striking; Danny Elfman’s score is an absolute work of art. Just as the art style combines Expressionist cinema with the reds and greens of Christmas, the music rides a fine line between creepy horror strings and the bold and brash brass associated with the festive season. Nightmare‘s most iconic sequences are of course its musical moments, and it’s no surprise that this film has been given the singalong showing treatment: when you have songs such as This is Halloween or What’s This it’d be a crime not to get as much potential out of them as possible.
It’s a standpoint that Disney seem to agree with, as they rereleased the film about a decade or so ago with new interpretations of the songs by contemporary artists. It was an experiment that yielded interesting results, but there’s no denying that the strong songwriting shone through all the same.
Most significantly of all though, are the film’s characters. Nightmare is an oddball film to say the least, so it takes some careful character work and writing to make sure that audiences wouldn’t be put off from scene one. Here though, there’s no danger of that ever becoming an issue. The characters are brilliantly realised, from world-weary Jack tired of the same thing every year, to the opportunist Oogie Boogie who sees his chance at seizing power as Jack descends deeper into his infatuation with Christmas. It’s a rich tapestry of characters that have become iconic over time – even being immortalised in pop-punk.
25 years since its release, there are very few seasonal movies that have captured the imagination of boys and girls of every age quite like The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s arguably the best, if not the only film that celebrates both Halloween and Christmas, and it could justifiably be considered the last great Christmas movie – though there are a few latecomers that might suggest hope on that end.
I have no doubt that in another 25 years, people will continue to enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas for generations. It’s a true classic of cinema, and one that likely wouldn’t be made by a big studio nowadays. Though as long as Disney can keep printing Jack Skellington on every conceivable surface for profit, I’m sure that they’re not regretting that decision one bit.