The greatest Tim Burton movie was not, in fact, directed by Tim Burton. But that doesn’t mean we can’t give credit where credit is due to the person who helped shape the magic of The Nightmare Before Christmas; a classic that is both the best Halloween and Christmas movie simultaneously.
If you were to ask a hundred random folks on the street who directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority would say “Tim Burton.” And with good reason. The cult classic is widely seen as the purest reflection of Burton’s macabre sensibility. Burton wrote the poem that inspired the film. He designed the lead characters. He produced and has a story credit. Burton’s name and image were successfully used to sell the stop-motion animated film to a family audience that otherwise might be skeptical of such a dark and macabre Christmas movie.
Thanks to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman, and, to a lesser extent, the blisteringly brilliant but initially misunderstood Batman Returns, Burton wasn’t just a uniquely gifted filmmaker on a hot streak when The Nightmare Before Christmas came out: he was an exceedingly lucrative brand.
That brand was arguably at its creative and commercial zenith in the early 1990s. Since making the big leap from hotshot animator to live-action director with Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Burton cranked out hit after hit. You know a filmmaker has a distinctive style when their name is turned into an adjective. Burton had reached that point by 1993. Confusingly enough, perhaps no movie in existence is more Tim Burtonesque than Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas.
Yet Tim Burton did NOT direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. The 1993 merchandising bonanza and Christmas and Halloween perennial was instead directed by animator turned stop-motion animation guru, Henry Selick.
A mere twenty-nine years after the release of Selick’s feature-film directorial debut, the director has politely but firmly established authorship of the film in an interview over on The A.V. Club.
The widespread conception that Burton directed The Nightmare Before Christmas is largely attributable to Burton’s name being in the title but apparently, that was a late-in-the-game move by a skittish studio worried about the dark and morbid nature of the film.
Selick was a first-time director when he made The Nightmare Before Christmas while Burton was quite possibly the hottest director in Hollywood. So it makes sense that a skittish Disney marketing a movie about a nightmarish skeleton man who takes over Christmas and unleashes all manner of macabre horrors would want to highlight that it was from the hit-maker who previously gave the world Pee-Wee Herman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and Michael Keaton’s Batman.
Selick makes it clear in the interview that he signed on to direct The Nightmare Before Christmas rather than Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas and was not overjoyed with the new title giving ownership of the film to a man who was directing two other movies in Los Angeles while Selick and his crew of artisans were painstakingly hand-crafting The Nightmare Before Christmas.
That’s the tricky thing about a collaborative medium like film. Movies, particularly if they’re successful, have many fathers and mothers. If they’re unsuccessful, however, they’re orphans.No one, consequently, is clamoring to claim credit for Monkeybone but Burton, Selick, and Danny Elfman —who wrote the lyrics and music for the film and was the singing voice of Jack Skellington— clearly all see The Nightmare Before Christmas as their beautifully morbid baby.
In The A.V. Club’s interview with Selick does not deny the very important role Burton played in the film’s making. He gives him credit for dreaming up the story and designing the main characters but that’s where he stops.
Selick even manages to throw a little subtle and not-so-subtle shade Burton’s way when he asserts, “Tim is a genius — or he certainly was in his most creative years.”
All but the most die-hard Tim Burton apologists would concede that Burton’s most creative years ended a long time ago. I’d argue that Burton’s golden age ended not long after The Nightmare Before Christmas, with 1996’s Mars Attacks.
Selick’s filmography since The Nightmare Before Christmas is spare but impressive. He directed the well-received 1996 stop-motion animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach before stumbling with Monkeybone and recovering nicely with 2009’s Coraline. The latter was so Tim Burtonesque that some folks thought he directed it as well despite it being a good movie from past 1996.
Selick just directed his first film in 13 years, a stop motion animated horror comedy called Wendell & Wild that he co-wrote with a filmmaker as hot today as Burton was back in 1993—Get Out, US and Nope writer-director Jordan Peele.
Selick is an accomplished auteur in his own right and understandably would like credit for his best-loved and most successful film. Besides, stop-motion animation is an agonizingly difficult and obscenely time-intensive process. It really seems to push creative people to their breaking point and beyond through overwork and stress. It makes sense that someone who worked so hard, and for so long, alongside so many driven animators who also killed themselves making miracles happen, wouldn’t want someone with a central but largely hands-off role to get all the kudos.
So the next time you watch The Nightmare Before Christmas remember that while it might be Tim Burton’s movie on a very real level, it’s primarily the work of a very talented man named Henry Selick who would very much appreciate some recognition after all this time.
Wendell & Wild is streaming on Netflix
The Nightmare Before Christmas is streaming on Disney+.
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