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How Tim Burton and Henry Selick made Nightmare Before Christmas a multi-holiday icon

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Oct 29, 2018, 6:01 PM EDT

It’s been 25 years since Disney brought a little gothic darkness to their world of animation when Tim Burton and Henry Selick teamed up for a stop-motion tale of holiday traditions, existential ennui, and the kidnapping of a childhood icon, all set to music by Danny Elfman. In the quarter century that followed, The Nightmare Before Christmas has evolved into an icon of the medium. To this day, violent arguments can break out on social media between those who consider the film to be a Christmas movie and those who insist it’s a Halloween one. Whatever your stance, there’s a reason this story has endured over the years.

The visuals of The Nightmare Before Christmas have grown far beyond its own story. Jack Skellington and company have become staples at Hot Topic and assorted businesses, evolving into an unofficial mascot for baby horror geeks and goths who like a little sugar in their spice. You can buy clothing, figurines, jewelry, mugs, notepads, board games, pins, perfume, stickers, posters, and, of course, Funko Pop dolls. Every year, Disneyland and Walt Disney World bring out Jack and Sally to mingle with visitors, and they renovate one of their most beloved attractions, the Haunted Mansion, with a Burton-esque seasonal overlay. While Disney often experimented with its animation styles, Burton and Selick’s work remains singular in a sea of princesses and Mickey Mouse dolls. The studio has made movies with scary moments and its array of villains is its own branding paradise, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is its black sheep who rings in the big bucks. He’s Disney for kids who don’t like Disney, and therein lies its genius both as a film and as a product.

Burton’s iconic frantic scrawls, evocative with a childlike sinister edge to them, have been the building blocks of his work since his early days as an animator under the Disney banner. After graduating from CalArts — a popular university for animators — Burton ended up working on films like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, but his pet project (literally) was Vincent. This stop-motion horror short from 1982 was the first real sign of how Burton would come to define himself as a filmmaker, along with his live-action short Frankenweenie. Everything that is so undeniably Burton-esque can be found in his work during his Disney days: an obsession with death, homages to Hammer horror and Vincent Price, a visual fascination with surrealism and German expressionism, a penchant for high romance, and a stalwart dedication to all things gothic. Burton may have made a couple of iconic films before this — including two Batman movies and Edward Scissorhands — but The Nightmare Before Christmas is the most potent distillation of everything that makes his work Burton-esque.

That’s somewhat strange to say given that Burton didn’t actually direct the film, even though it was marketed by Disney and Touchstone as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton himself would later express cynicism with this decision, noting how "it turned more into more of a brand-name thing, it turned into something else, which I'm not quite sure about." Indeed, Burton wasn't even on set for the majority of the film's production because he was busy making Batman Returns. The man responsible for a team of over 120 workers and close to 110,000 frames of film was Henry Selick. While the cartoon gothic aesthetic is all Burton’s, based on a poem he wrote, Selick did all the hard work, and that’s led to some readings of the film erasing both his contribution and his style from the proceedings.

At a time when American animation was dominated by the 2D hand-drawn style and a roster of Disney copycats, Henry Selick was something of a throwback. He’s as much influenced by classic horror and the gothic aesthetic as Burton. From this to James and the Giant Peach to Coraline, Selick has delved into the colorful menace of the Brothers Grimm and Victorian penny dreadfuls to create an overwhelming mood that’s somewhere between Disney and David Lynch. Selick and Burton are also united by more than their common pop culture interests. Both are strident believers in the idea that movies for kids shouldn’t be afraid to scare kids. Indeed, a fundamental requirement for growing up should be the first moment you see a film and it terrifies you. Disney are experts at this, but they’ve never fully embraced the visual markers of classic horror in the way that Burton and Selick made so palatable for ‘90s audiences. The Nightmare Before Christmas may be the egg that Burton birthed, but it wouldn’t be the same without Selick raising it.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is also typically Disney in the way it takes a familiar story and reimagines it for a modern audience. While this isn't quite on the same level as, say, making Hamlet a soap opera with lions or turning 1001 Arabian Nights into a meta-commentary on pop culture, it's still following the path well trodden by the House of Mouse. Everyone knows The Night Before Christmas, so how does that work out when the guy in charge of the other major holiday takes over? What happens to Christmas when its style, mood, and intent are swapped with the one day of the year designed to scare the crap out of you?

The simple conceit of The Nightmare Before Christmas is what makes it so timeless as well as visually creative. Every year, as Christmas preparations seem to come earlier than ever and Santa hats sit on the store shelves right next to pumpkins, it can be all too easy to become fatigued with the season before we even get snowfall. Burton and Selick get that Halloween is the perfect antidote to that: a night of dark revelry and thrills, free of the sweetness and unity demanded of Christmas. All the best moments in the film come from Jack Skellington’s attempts to meld what he knows with this new thing he’s become obsessed with: the residents of Halloweentown giddily packing presents for children that will most likely kill them; the fact that nobody seems able to imagine Santa Claus as anything other than a primal madman.

That’s not to say the film is devoid of sweetness. Burton’s strength in his oft-imitated style — something that remains oddly unique for a director of his multibillion-dollar stature — and that gothic geekiness doesn’t work without wholehearted earnestness. He genuinely loves all this dark stuff, totally free of irony, and he wants you to love it too. This is evident in films like Edward Scissorhands, wherein he trusts audiences to fall in love with a razor-handed man as much as he has, or in the deliberate garishness of Sleepy Hollow, where the emotional core remains sturdy. Even his more mainstream efforts, like Ed Wood, are all about the joys of being and loving an outcast. With The Nightmare Before Christmas, the world of Halloween is as much a loving community as any other world, one populated by kind and friendly people whose interests just happen to be a tad more psychotic than others. Like The Addams Family, the film dares you not to love these people. They’re so very easy to love, too. After all, it would be a lot harder to sell merchandise and have fun at Disneyland if the central product were bitter.

A quarter of a century on, The Nightmare Before Christmas’s legacy has cemented its film’s status as a brand as much as it is a piece of art. A story about outsiders and their oddities is now the stuff of merchandise and family vacations. The niche aesthetic that made Tim Burton such a risky director in his early days has now made him the ninth-highest-grossing director in America. The movie that was partly a way for its filmmakers to thumb their noses at Disney is a black gem in that studio’s ever-growing crown.

Everyone gets to be the weird kid now because it’s cool and The Nightmare Before Christmas helped to make that happen. That seems like a much stronger legacy than the eternal question of whether it’s a Christmas or Halloween movie.

But it’s a Halloween film. Just clearing that up.

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