The prodigal son returns...
There’s an old saying, “what goes around, comes around” and that has never been more true than when applied to the group of animators that Disney sacked in the early 1980s. One was interested in using computers as an animation tool but the old guard at Disney were having none of it and sent him packing. John Lasseter went on to help found Pixar, where he created Toy Story and changed the face of animation forever. Disney later bought Pixar and as a part of that deal, Lasseter now runs Disney Animation.
The other animator who was given his marching orders had already made two short films for Disney but they felt that their tone was too dark and that his ideas were too weird for family orientated entertainment. Tim Burton went on to make Batman of course and a half a billion dollars later, Disney realised that dark material could be popular and suddenly Burton’s ideas weren’t so weird anymore.
Whilst at Disney Burton had made the short film Vincent about a young boy who was obsessed with Vincent Price. The film is essentially a poem narrated by Vincent Price and with its stop-motion animation and Burton designed characters was a precursor to The Nightmare Before Christmas. He had also made Frankenweenie, about a boy who reanimates his dead dog and it was this film in particular that earned Burton his one-way trip to the dole office. Ironically, after the success of Alice In Wonderland, Disney have agreed to finance a full length version of Frankenweenie, which is currently in production.
Whilst making Frankenweenie, Burton began to develop the idea that would become The Nightmare Before Christmas, initially as a poem and then through a series of design sketches. Unfortunately the rights remained with Disney so after his departure, Burton was unable to take the project somewhere else. However after the success of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Batman, Disney offered Burton the chance to direct his dream project, a biography of infamous filmmaker Ed Wood, and also dusted off his old ideas for The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Since Burton was busy making Batman Returns, he wouldn’t be able to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas himself and so he chose fellow Disney alumni Henry Selick to oversee the animation. Despite this, Burton’s fingerprints are all over the production, from the script to designs to the voice cast of Burton regulars. Among the voice cast were Catherine O’Hara as Sally, Paul Reubens as Lock and Glenn Shadix as The Mayor, all of whom had appeared in previous Burton features. However the most important collaborator was Burton regular Danny Elfman, who would provide both the score and the songs for the film, as well as Jack Skellington’s singing voice.
As mentioned previously the animation was overseen by Henry Selick, who is credited as director despite the obvious influence of Tim Burton. The two filmmakers had met at Disney and Selick, with his love of stop-motion animation, was the perfect choice to help Burton bring his vision to the screen. Selick of course has gone on to direct other features including James and the Giant Peach, which combined live action and stop-motion animation and was produced by Burton. He also directed the more recent Coraline which was also a stop-motion animated feature but was photographed with 3D cameras.
The plot of the film - which is quite simple, as you would expect from a story based on a poem - centres around Halloween Town, whose inhabitants are responsible for ensuring people are suitably scared every Halloween. The annual activities are organised by Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon) but he is becoming bored of the same routine. He accidentally discovers that there are other towns dedicated to other holidays such as Easter and Christmas and filled with the Christmas spirit he decides to kidnap Santa and hijack the holiday for himself. Needless to say all does not go well but ultimately things turn out for the best and Jack finds love and a new lease of life.
If the film ultimately fails it is because of two very specific reasons, the first is the script which is short on laughs. The story just isn’t very entertaining or much fun and rather than being scary it comes off as ghoulish. The second problem is that despite all his hard work, Danny Elfman’s songs are not very memorable and it is unlikely you will find yourself humming any the next day. Tim Burton’s designs are as interesting as always and the skill and craftsmanship on display is exceptional but you find yourself admiring the film rather than liking it.
In 2006 Disney re-released The Nightmare Before Christmas as a 3D feature, thanks to a 2D to 3D conversion that was done by Industrial Light and Magic. This was one of the earliest examples of a conversion being done to an entire feature and no doubt the film’s 76 minute running time helped in this regard. As such it was a surprisingly effective conversion, which would suggest that a great deal of time and money was spent to achieve such impressive results. In much the same way that The Lion King recently lent itself to a 3D conversion due to the simplistic nature of its 2D cell animation, the same is true of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The shallow depth of the stop-motion photography and the artificial nature of the world the filmmakers created lent itself perfectly to the 3D conversion process. The result was one of the most successful examples of a 3D conversion, that added to the film’s narrative drive without diminishing its stylistic impact.
Tim Burton turned his hand to stop-motion animation again in 2005, with the Corpse Bride and despite the similarities to The Nightmare Before Christmas - it was conceived, written and designed by Tim Burton - the film itself was much more enjoyable. This is undoubtedly because it is much funnier and the songs are more memorable and also, perhaps, because Burton co-directed this time. It is no coincidence that Henry Selick’s Coraline is another film that is more admired than enjoyed.
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