The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite holiday movies, and one that I consider required October viewing. Despite its cult status and pervasive slew of annual merchandise, I don’t recall ever hearing much about the film’s technical aspects or why people like it so much. I find this is the case with many holiday movies; we revisit them every year but don’t talk much about why. I don’t take it for granted that a movie is good, and for me, discovering and breaking down what I enjoy about it is not an insignificant part of the fun. I haven’t had much time to watch Halloween movies this year (or do much else), and I’ve never really done a deep dive into The Nightmare Before Christmas despite my love for it, so now is the time. Let’s take a look.
Everybody knows the story of Jack Skellington the Pumpkin King. Jack is the most beloved individual in Halloween Town, renowned for his scares and spooky spectacles. Jack even has a not-so-secret admirer, but he wants more out of life. Jack becomes consumed by the notion that there’s more outside of Halloween Town and that he needs to find it. When Jack journeys outside of his home, he finds a tree-shaped door containing his new obsession.
Here, The Nightmare Before Christmas diverges from the majority of animated films at the time in a big way. Most contemporary Disney movies featured a curious young hero/ine who wanted more out of life and went on an adventure to a strange new place. But those movies portrayed that curiosity and determination as admirable traits we should aspire to. Those characters usually got the reward of true love or more freedom for their efforts. There’s nothing heroic in Jack’s yearning or the actions that follow. In his attempt to bring Christmas to Halloween Town, Jack recklessly endangers the lives of his friends and Santa Claus. He can’t even understand Christmas, and the denizens of Halloween Town really don’t get it. Not only is Jack’s Christmas takeover dangerous and short-sighted, it doesn’t serve any purpose. What was it for? The song “Jack’s Obsession” paints a vivid picture of Jack’s hubris. It’s not really curiosity that drives Jack; it’s arrogance to prove that he can master Christmas as well as Halloween. “And there’s no reason I can find/I couldn’t handle Christmas time/I bet I could improve it too!/And that’s exactly what I’ll do!” His existential boredom results in kidnapping Santa Claus, appropriating his holiday, and ruining it for the children who expect Santa. He also makes the questionable decision to enlist Lock, Shock, and Barrel, AKA Boogie’s Boys, to kidnap and transport Santa. He tells them not to get Oogie Boogie involved, but how could he believe they would obey? They’re tricksters who literally work for the Boogeyman.
I’m not saying that this was necessarily an intentional creative choice to contrast other animated movies at the time. It would be interesting, though. Tim Burton started out as an animator at Disney, working on movies like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. His designs for the latter were largely ignored in favor of a more traditional, Sleeping Beauty/The Sword in the Stone look. Burton’s designs were superior, for the most part, and certainly more distinctive, but his creepy creatures didn’t gel with the Disney brand. The studio didn’t even want to be associated with The Nightmare Before Christmas 8 years later, quietly releasing it under the Touchstone banner to moderate box office returns and good reviews. I’ve always found it funny that The Nightmare Before Christmas, perhaps the most Burton-esque movie ever made, wasn’t directed by him. He designed the characters, and the story is based on a poem by him; the film is always billed as “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.” But Burton was busy with Batman Returns at the time and served as a producer on Nightmare. The film was directed by Henry Selick, another former Disney animator who would go on to direct James and the Giant Peach and Coraline. This isn’t to say that Nightmare isn’t Burton’s baby, just that I think people (myself included) often forget what a collaborative art filmmaking is. Even when one person’s artistic sensibilities and ideas are on display, it takes a team to bring them to life.
The acting in The Nightmare Before Christmas often goes neglected in discourse, but it’s a defining characteristic that makes the movie work. Catherine O’Hara voices the female lead Sally, as well as Shock, Oogie Boogie’s female henchman. O’Hara has been in movies like Home Alone and Beetlejuice and recently starred in the hit Netflix series Schitt’s Creek. She’s excellent as Sally, imbuing a fairly simple character with vulnerability and charm. Her performance as Shock is great too, and this scheming troublemaker is a very different role from Sally. O’Hara has since had other voice acting roles, including Burton’s own Frankenweenie (2012.) Jack Skellington gets his voice from two different performers: Chris Sarandon speaks Jack’s dialogue, but composer Danny Elfman provides his singing voice. The transition is entirely seamless, crafting a perfect performance from two different men. Sarandon is probably best remembered as Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride or Jerry in Fright Night, and he voiced Kurotowa in the English dub of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. By this point, Elfman was an established film composer, having scored Tim Burton’s feature directorial debut, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, among other things. Elfman also voices Barrel and other background characters. Glenn Shadix (Beetlejuice, Heathers) plays the town’s two-faced Mayor. The Mayor is a spineless, anxious figurehead who relies on Jack to boost Halloween Town’s morale and make big decisions. Paul Reubens (Pee-wee’s Big Adventure) voices Lock. Edward Ivory plays Santa Claus, a thankless role in what has become the quintessential Halloween movie. But he plays the character well, taking him seriously and delivering his dialogue with conviction. He also provides the film’s opening narration. Ken Page steals the show as Oogie Boogie. Page is more of a stage performer than a movie star, though he has appeared in other movies and shows. He voiced King Gator in All Dogs go to Heaven and played Old Deuteronomy in the original Broadway cast of Cats. Oogie Boogie is the most fun of all the characters, a true showman and unscrupulous gambler.
The scenes in Oogie’s lair are also some of the most visually stunning in a film brimming with inspiration. Meticulous puppetry and ingenious prop work bring life to the ghouls and creatures populating Halloween Town. In every scene, there’s so much going on in the background. Just look at Sally’s face when Jack ponders what could be missing from “(his) Christmas”. Her intricate expression changes multiple times as it seems like he might finally get her point but continues rambling instead. I love stop-motion animation, and I wish it was used more. There’s something about knowing everything on screen is real and was carefully crafted and arranged by hand. It makes the feats of lighting, staging, and visual effects even more impressive to think that the painstaking detail of the film was achieved in this way. At one point, Disney actually wanted to produce a computer-animated sequel to the film, apparently not ashamed of it anymore after seeing its financial and cultural impact. Thankfully, Tim Burton shut down this idea.
And it would be a crime to talk about this movie without digging into what people remember most vividly: the music. The film’s most iconic piece of music has to be “This is Halloween,” the opening number that perfectly introduces Jack and sets the tone for what will follow. It’s endlessly hummable and covers a lot of ground in just a couple of minutes. This scene is also a visual highlight of the film; I love the way it pans over the various monsters and scenery of the town. “Jack’s Lament” starts out with Jack bragging about his accomplishments and talents, but as the title would suggest, it really explores how unsatisfied he is with his life. “What’s This?” perfectly captures the look and feel of Christmas as Jack discovers his new passion. Every song either pushes the story forward or explores a character’s motivation, a necessity in a movie that’s only 80 minutes long. Not one frame, line of dialogue, or note of music goes to waste. My favorites are “Sally’s Song,” a lovesick ballad expressing her feelings for Jack and concerns about Christmas, and “Oogie Boogie’s Song.” Visually and musically, this sequence is unlike anything else in the movie. I always heard people say villains get the best songs in musicals, and I don’t necessarily agree with that as a general rule. But it’s certainly true in The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Despite all the technical prowess and artistic passion on display, what really seals the deal is The Nightmare Before Christmas’ representation of Christmas and Halloween. This is an unpretentious film. It operates under logic very similar to the old Rankin/Bass holiday specials. This is a village of Halloween creatures where magic is real and true love is as uncomplicated as in any fairy tale. Jack causes trouble for every other major character (and himself). But because he comes to his senses, battles Oogie Boogie, and frees Santa and Sally, all is well, and almost everyone gets what they want. Sally’s creator, Dr. Finklestein, is a lonely old man who wants to create a girlfriend for himself and ultimately succeeds after Sally runs away. There’s much to unpack here, but this isn’t that kind of movie. And do you know what? I love that. This movie radiates the feeling and spirit of Halloween, and it gets the tone and atmosphere down right off the bat. People tend to discount how well this movie portrays Christmas Town and Santa Claus himself because it’s not the primary focus. When Jack sings, “And in my bones, I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside,” the audience can too. The musical, visual, and tonal shift in Christmas Town is perfect. It feels like Christmas, yet doesn’t feel like an unnatural switch or a gimmick at all. While Jack’s actions are foolish, selfish, and self-important, his attraction to Christmas Town is completely understandable. Heck, looking at the place, I want to live there. While Lock, Shock, and Barrel mock Santa, and Oogie Boogie taunts him, the movie treats him with reverence. He’s one of few characters who possess magic, and he’s the one who fixes Christmas after Jack decides to do the right thing. He also serves as a mirror for the audience; aghast at Jack’s rashness, Santa observes that Sally is “the only one who makes any sense around here.” Santa’s words make Jack finally realize how Sally feels and that the feeling is mutual.
There’s a lot to appreciate in The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I hope I’ve done justice to its status as an enduring Halloween classic. Never has a more talented, passionate group of individuals come together to make a film with such a keen eye for what people love about the holidays. This is exactly the kind of movie I want to watch when the leaves change colors, and I’ve found few that scratch this particular itch as well as The Nightmare Before Christmas. Do you have a favorite Halloween movie? Let us know in the comments below, and have a happy, spooky Halloween!