Retro Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas
Everything old is new again, or so it seems. In Retro Review, our resident film buffs take a dive into a movie classic -- and tell us why it worked then, and whether it still works now. This week, Genevieve Nardella looks back at a classic from 1993.
THE MOVIE: The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993. One Oscar nomination (Best Visual Effects), 2 Saturn Awards (Best Fantasy Film and Best Music)
WHO’S IN IT? Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens.
DO I KNOW THEM? Given how prolific this cast is, you’re most likely familiar with some of their work. Danny Elfman’s decades-long career has included highlights such as being the front man of 80s band Oingo Boingo, becoming Tim Burton’s go-to composer, and creating The Simpsons theme. Chris Sarandon is probably best-known for playing Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride (and being Susan Sarandon’s ex-husband). Catherine O’Hara has been active in film and TV since the 70s, and you probably recognise her from Home Alone and Schitt’s Creek. Finally, there’s Pee-Wee Herman himself, Paul Reubens.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
The movie focuses on the character of Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon). Although he’s beloved by his fellow citizens and heralded as the ‘Pumpkin King’, he grows tired of his duties and his home, Halloween Town. During a wander through the woods, he discovers a door leading to Christmas Town, which enchants him with its yuletide spirit. He attempts to recapture the magic of Christmas with the help of Sally (Catherine O’Hara), not realising how misguided his actions are, not to mention their potential to hurt other people.
WHY DID IT WORK THEN?
Although the film was directed by Henry Selick (who would go on to direct 2009’s Coraline) Tim Burton’s fingerprints are all over it; it was based on a poem Burton had written, and he worked closely with composer Danny Elfman. It was very important to Burton that the movie -- being a musical -- flowed well, and the songs were all well-executed. Only after finishing these songs did Caroline Thompson start working on the screenplay.
Naturally, the music is excellent. Elfman’s compositions draw on the darkness of his usual style, often incorporating the Dies Irae, a musical theme used to communicate death or darkness. Still, he adds plenty of holiday touches, like bells and lovely major keys. Something wonderful and surprising about this movie is Elfman’s other major contribution to the soundtrack: his singing as Jack. He sang in his band for years, but this movie showcases the range and pleasant timbre of his voice in a whole new way. At times, booming and triumphant, and at others, haunting and melancholic, he reveals his voice to be an incredible instrument capable of almost anything.
As for the animation, this is one of the most visually breathtaking animated movies of all time, in no small part due to Burton’s instantly recognisable character designs, particularly for Jack. Even if his face hadn’t been slapped on so much merchandise, audiences would never be able to forget his expressive face, beanpole physique and pinstriped suit.
DOES IT WORK NOW?
For the most part, yes. However, the character of Oogie Boogie could be interpreted as racist. He was inspired by Cab Calloway in the Betty Boop cartoon, The Old Man in the Mountain, and Elfman’s song for him draws from St James Infirmary Blues. This is fine, but Calloway’s character was occasionally villainous, which could raise some eyebrows, given that Oogie’s the black villain in a movie full of good characters all voiced by white people. Also, the term “oogie boogie” has been used to demean African-Americans, as screenwriter Caroline Thompson has pointed out in interviews.
DO I NEED TO SEE IT?
Absolutely. This is a holiday classic that can be watched anytime in the last three months of the year: the plot spans from Halloween night to Christmas Day. If you haven’t had the pleasure of seeing it yet, give it a go.