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THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

Tim Burton had found the inspiration for the story of The Nightmare Before Christmas when he saw a Halloween display in a store being replaced by a Christmas one, and the juxtaposition between Burton's two favourite holidays seemed perfect for a stop-motion animated fantasy. Since he had come up with the idea for the film while he was working at Disney, they owned the rights. Initially he asked if he could buy the rights back from them, but Disney wanted to bring the director back into the fold so only agreed to let him make the film if he kept it at the studio.

Although Burton chose not to direct (turning directorial duties over to his old friend Henry Selick), the finished film would have his name (and his style) stamped all over it. Burton's original poem (which only featured three clear characters - Jack Skellington, his dog Zero and Santa Claus) was greatly expanded by screenwriter Caroline Thompson and composer Danny Elfman, who would write a number of songs to help the story along. In fact, nearly all the major plot points are told through song, so Thompson's job was to essentially fill in the blanks between the musical numbers.

A company called Skellington productions was formed in 1990 to make the film. The painstaking stop-motion process (I won't bother explaining the process here) took place in San Francisco. Nightmare would be the first stop-motion animated feature film (not counting films that mixed stop-motion and live action) and it would be the most advanced use of the animation technique to that date. It would be three years of hard work before the film was ready for release.

The film would mark the first time Burton himself was used as a marketing tool, with his name above the title. Despite Disney's newfound support for Burton, they still found the project morbid compared to their usual fare and, when it was given a PG rating, decided to release it under their Touchstone banner instead.

"A long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place perhaps you've seen in your dreams . . ." So begins the story of Jack Skellington - the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. Patrick Stewart did the original narration for the opening (which can be heard on the soundtrack album) but was replaced by Edward Ivory (the voice of Santa) because Stewart's voice was supposedly too recognisable.

In classic Burtonesque outsider fashion, Jack longs to try something different from running Halloween. He gets his wish when he uncovers a doorway in a tree to a place called Christmas Town. The other doorways go to Easter, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July (it's fun to imagine what Burton would have done with an insanely patriotic land), Valentine's Day and St. Patrick's Day.

However, it's Christmas that lures Jack in. He decides to take over Halloween from Santa and uses every means at his disposal to try and ensure it’ll be a success, but of course he has totally the wrong ideas. There isn't much more to it than that and even by Burton's standards the narrative is weak.

For example, it takes over a month for Lock, Shock and Barrel to return after Jack orders them to kidnap the “Sandy Claws” (there’s an amusing scene where they bring a terrified Easter Bunny back by mistake), while the final reversal of Jack failing at Christmas and realising he should stick to what he knows seems to happen too quickly.

Despite the slight plot, the design of the characters and the charming songs are enough to maintain the viewer's interest throughout. And the ending, where Jack finally notices Sally the Ragdoll's love for him, is quite touching.

The character animation and voice talent are both top notch. Jack is wonderfully expressive for a skeleton, and Chris Sarandon's voice is well suited to his spoken dialogue (Elfman would, of course, provide his amazing singing voice). Sally the Ragdoll is a very appealing heroine, and her patchwork costume recalls the pieced-together attire of Catwoman. Catherine O'Hara does a wonderful acting job and gives Sally a beautiful singing voice.

Of the supporting cast, Ken Page is great fun as the film's villain, Oogie Boogie, who is essentially a sack full of bugs. His character was clearly influenced by Cab Calloway, of whom Elfman was a fan. The distinctive voice of William Hickey is a perfect match for Dr. Finkelstein. Burton regulars fill out many of the supporting roles, such as Glenn Shadix as the Mayor of Halloween Town and Paul Reubens as Lock.

Turning to the minor characters, Zero falls into the tradition of loveable Burton mutts - his nose even resembles a pumpkin. There are also some more familiar ghoulish characters, such as Mr. Hyde (three of them, two of which pop out of the bigger one's hat) and the Devil himself, who seems to have been demoted in Halloween Town.

Henry Selick obviously had a great deal of input on Burton's vision, and many of the images in the final film are closer to his style than Burton's. Though Selick's contribution was played down by many (indeed some people think to this day that Burton actually directed the film) it is undoubtedly as much his film as Burton's. The use of black light in Oogie Boogie's lair marks a departure from Burton's usual style and may be one of the areas that Selick influenced.

The design of the film is fabulous; from the ghoulish Halloween Town (which even has a pumpkin for a sun) to the Rankin/Bass style Christmas Town to the slightly bland real world. Nearly every frame is teeming with wonderful character and architectural detail.

One concept that was abandoned was the denizens of Halloween Town playing ice hockey with Burton's severed head. The Clown with a tearaway face was also scarier in his early incarnation. Behemoth is based on Tor Johnson, the star of several Ed Wood films.

The fact that so many of the characters have either missing or sewn-shut eyes may be a reaction to Burton's unhappiness with having to draw cute animal eyes back when he was working at Disney.

In some ways the whole film could be seen as a visual effect, but the animation process is for the most part invisible, allowing the viewer to focus on the characters. There were 227 puppets used in total in the film. The puppets were incredibly detailed, and Oogie Boogie was one of the biggest ever made. Replacement heads were used for all the different facial expressions. Both hand drawn animation and some minor computer effects subtly enhanced the stop motion animation.

Elfman's numerous songs serve the plot as well as being hummable. Highlights include the wonderfully ghoulish opening number "This is Halloween", the upbeat and catchy "What's This?" and the hauntingly beautiful "Sally's Song". The score is also very effective as a bridge between the songs. Other Disney films could certainly learn from how well the songs are integrated into Nightmare.

Nightmare is clearly influenced not only by Dr. Seuss's “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” (Seuss was Burton's favourite children's author) but also the Rankin/Bass stop motion Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Burton wanted to create an updated version of those holiday classics. Visually, the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari also influenced the film.

In contrast to previous Burton films, where the main character's pleas for acceptance are usually met with violent rejection, Nightmare has a much more optimistic conclusion. While it's true that Jack's attempt to take over Christmas is a failure, it simply teaches him to be happy doing what he's best at.

The film could be seen as the conclusion of Burton's “Christmas outsiders” trilogy. Edward Scissorhands was about longing to belong and being rejected, Batman Returns was about vengeful anger at that rejection, while Nightmare is about acceptance of who you are. The lesson is: be true to thyself.

Overall, this is certainly not your standard Disney animation. While some parents thought it was too scary, it's certainly no worse than any Brothers Grimm tale. And it all ends happily. Nightmare continues Burton's affection for characters that are usually depicted as monsters in films like King Kong, Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon. As Burton says in “The Film The Art The Vision” book for Nightmare: "I feel for these characters. They're not bad; people are torturing them, attacking them".

There are some problems with pacing, as already mentioned. But for the most part the editing keeps things fun and moving fast. It's also possible that the film might have had more emotion and humour if Burton had directed, but Selick does a great job nonetheless.

When it was released, the film received mostly positive reviews. It even won praise from some critics who had previously been left cold by Burton's films, such as Roger Ebert. It seemed that many critics were better able to accept Burton's twisted vision in animation form rather than live action. Indeed, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times wrote, "Burton has a taste for off-center, gruesome comedy - so off-putting when attached to real people, as it was in Batman Returns - but perfectly suited to these characters".

Some critics did complain that the songs were unmemorable, but this was likely a result of them not fitting into the pop genre that recent Disney films had adopted for their soundtracks.

Nightmare was given an initial limited release by Disney and performed very well. When it expanded to more theaters, it continued to perform well without becoming the blockbuster the studio perhaps hoped for. Eventually it made over $50 million in the U.S. Elfman was once again unfairly ignored at the Oscars, but it was nominated for the best Visual Effects award (though of course it had no chance up against Jurassic Park).

There was some controversy over how much credit Burton actually deserved for the finished film. While Burton had nothing but praise for Selick and his crew, stating in the official book for the film that they had made it "more beautiful than I imagined it would be", many still overlooked Selick's contribution as director. As Selick said in an interview for the Projections book series, "I'm more upset by how much credit Tim Burton received . . . I think his contributions cannot be denied. But I was the guy who made the film for close on three years of my life."

Few could have guessed that the film's modest initial success would gradually snowball into a genuine phenomenon. Merchandise for the film, which had been very scarce in '93, began to spring up all over the place, thanks to stores like Hot Topic. The film became an annual Halloween attraction at Disney's El Capitan Theater in L.A. and a generation of kids who hadn't even been born when it was first released discovered it on TV and DVD.

Of all the films Burton has been involved with that are based on his own ideas, Nightmare is now the most famous and popular, especially among young people. There was even a 3D version of the film released in October 2006. It has become a perennial classic just like the holiday films Burton grew up on.

In 1994, Burton produced the film Cabin Boy. Mostly forgotten now, it's actually a pretty entertaining odd little fantasy movie. It stars Chris Elliot as the "fancy lad" who mistakenly gets on a boat and encounters salty fishermen, a shark/human hybrid, giants and David Letterman asking him "Would you like to buy a monkey?" (a line Letterman riffed on when he hosted the Oscars the next year).

The film has a similar freewheeling structure to Burton's own Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, though without the same level of wit.

Another connection is that the score is by longtime Elfman orchestrator, Steve Bartek. Despite the Burton connections, the film has its own colorfully surreal style.

As with Batman Forever, Burton actually had little to do with the film, other than lending his name. The film lacks the originality and vision that Burton would have brought if he had directed it. However, it's still a fun movie and has some wonderfully delirious visuals sprinkled throughout, which makes it worth seeking out for those who enjoy "dumb" comedies.

In contrast to the poor reception for Cabin Boy, 1994 would also see the release of Burton's most critically acclaimed film to date, ironically based on the life of a director many considered the worst in Hollywood history . . .

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