Irony of ironies, Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” wasn’t technically directed by Tim Burton. It’s his story, world and aesthetic – but the director is stop-action virtuoso Henry Selick, who also did “James and the Giant Peach” and “Coraline.” Stop-motion is an animation technique where objects (in this case, clay figurines) are moved in tiny increments between photographed frames, creating the illusion of movement when the frames are played continuously (like flip-books). “Nightmare” is stop-motion at its finest, the characters dashing about on miniature, 3-dimensional sets crafted with loving detail.
The film operates under the pretense of every holiday having its own town, accessible by stepping inside a tree trunk in some random forest (Easter has a door shaped like a pastel egg, Thanksgiving has a turkey, etc. There are no ethnic holidays). At the story’s beginning, we enter through the only door any logical person would choose: One leading into Halloween Town. Inside is an alien landscape; there’s a lonely graveyard with crooked cross stones, precariously slanted buildings (a Burton hallmark), spiky architecture with cobwebs, bats and cruel-looking pumpkins. Everything is gray, with an occasional dash of orange or slime green.
And as in every Burton feature, the creatures inhabiting Halloween Town are loners, misfits and weirdos. We meet the two-faced mayor, with a head that spins maniacally between “happy” and “sad” expressions; a nasty bogeyman with a gambling addiction; Zero, a loyal ghost-dog; a squad of gloomy vampires; Sally, a ragdoll with long eyelashes and a svelte figure who periodically falls apart and has to sew herself back together; and our story’s hero, Jack Skellington, a lanky skeleton in a suave pinstripe suit who lords over his ghoulish charges.
But Jack has grown tired of being “The Pumpkin King,” a title he has held forever. One day, he stumbles upon the holiday forest and enters Christmas Town, where his imagination is resurrected. The antithesis to H-Town, everything here is blanketed by sparkling snow, decked with twinkling colored lights and candy-cane trim, filled with elves singing carols and lorded over by “Sandy Claws” (as Jack believes him to be named), a kindly, fat fellow in red and white.
Loving the change of scenery, Jack kidnaps Santa and assumes the role himself, demanding that his minions prepare for Christmas this year, not Halloween. He succeeds – somewhat – flying a sleigh with ghost reindeer and delivering horrifying presents to little children ’round the world (to one boy, he gifts a giant snake that devours his family’s tree).
“Nightmare” is about the loneliness of fame and power, and the madness writer’s block inspires. We encounter Jack as he grapples with a lack of creative inspiration. He realizes, eventually, that stealing someone else’s ideas isn’t as fulfilling as having your own, and comes to see just how impressive his personal set of skills was to begin with.