With October done and gone, November dreary as ever and December waiting with its handful of frost just around the corner, we have entered into the period at the end of the year when holiday spirit changes from frightful to plentiful to delightful in a matter of weeks. While for many people this excitement evokes a festive cheer, for some it delivers a keen melancholy, a ghoulish sadness exacerbated by the weather, the shortened days, a falsity of spirit or recognition of missed opportunities throughout the year. The holidays have this kind of polarizing effect.
For me, one movie has always captured the whole spectrum of holiday emotion. Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” touches on everything from fear to elation to confusion, and it does so with wonderful imagination. It’s a film of stark originality and creation — irreplaceable by any standard. The darkness of its story lends the whole project a necessary realism, which, taken in effect, mirrors the little windows of sobering reality we glance through between bouts of holiday folly and festivity.
In his 1993 feature about “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Blaise Simpson described Burton as a lonely child who would often look to the holidays as escape. As Burton recalled in their discussion, “Anytime there was Christmas or Halloween … it was great. It gave you some sort of texture all of a sudden that wasn’t there before.”
After completing “Vincent” in 1982, Burton drew from such holiday-film inspiration as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” to write a three-page poem called “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” As new ideas came to him, he would add to or adjust the poem. Eventually, with the help of craft-genius Rick Heinrichs, he started to storyboard and tinker with concept art. He and Heinrichs went to director Henry Selick, also a famous animator, to gauge studio interest. Though Selick was impressed, the project stalled. According to Pat H. Broeske in her 1991 piece “Dusting Off Burton,” “‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ was originally deemed ‘too weird’ and put on the back burner by the studio.” So in 1984, Burton left the project alone.
In the years following, Burton’s offbeat, slightly macabre style became enormously popular. As he added part of the “Batman” series, “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands” to his repertoire, the movie-going public had developed a strong affinity for his bizarre and creative visions. In 1990, Burton returned to Disney and was given the rights to produce a full-length feature version of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” along with Selick as director. They began production in the summer of 1991. It would take them two full years to complete.
Over 120 workers used 20 different stages to create the accurate stop-motion filming. They used 227 unique puppet characters to capture a total of 109,440 frames. Composer Danny Elfman penned and scored 10 original songs. The film grossed more than 4.5 times the original $18 million budget. The numbers are staggering, the results more staggering still.
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” takes viewers to a familiar but indistinct part of their imagination, and like a dream they’ve had throughout their lives without really knowing what it meant or what happened, they wander through the spectral territory in a wash of perplexity and awe. Every detail is thoroughly imagined, every nook and every crevice holds a rightful place, and if all the scenery and shadowy portraits of a not-so-scary nightmare point to one thing, it would be this: that sometimes, dwelling in the spooky, fantastical parts of our mind isn’t all that bad.