When my father first dressed up as Santa Claus and came in the back door my sister, who was very young at the time, took one look and hid under the table. While she was under the table, however, she noticed Dad and “Santa” wore the same slippers. The next Christmas she was ready for “Santa” and played a little trick of her own.
I tell this story to show how deceptively savvy youngsters can be. When I first saw TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS I worried very young kids might be spooked by Mr. Burton’s macabre view of the season. Y’see, in the film, Mr. Burton imagines a fantastical universe in which every holiday has its own kingdom. Halloweentown is ruled by restless goblin Jack Skellington. Stumbling across a secret gateway and entering the magical kingdom of Christmastown, Jack is dazzled by the spirit and ritual of the snowy realm. The ambitious goblin decides to hijack the holiday and present it to the world from Halloweentown. Naturally, he gets all the details hilariously wrong.
Nightmare was a labor of love for Mr. Burton (who wrote the original storyline and came up with the visual concept) and director Henry Selick. Jack and his friends are actually stick-like puppets who move onscreen by adjusting the various body parts a fraction of an inch at a time and filming the “action” frame by frame. To give you an idea of the time involved it takes 24 microscopic adjustments to film one second of footage. (The film took two years to complete.) The process, known as stop motion animation dates back to the original 1933 version of King Kong and achieved its zenith in the work of legendary FX genius Ray Harryhausen (1958’s Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, 1963’s Jason and the Argonauts, the original 1981 Clash of the Titans ) .
Thanks to Tim Burton’s vision and Henry Selick’s painstaking craftsmanship, a wildly inventive script by Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) and a delightfully off beat score by Danny Elfman, the lovably weird characters come to life.
An imaginative and fanciful feast for the eyes rich in visual detail and brimming with eerie, vibrant life.
PS Check out 2009’s Coraline for more of Mr. Selick’s stop-motion animation (based on a script by Neil Gaiman).