“This year, Christmas will be… OURS!”
I’m cheating a little bit with this one, as there’s very little fear in The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it’s got tons of monsters and talking skeletons and animated burlap sacks full of bugs. Close enough, right? And it’s my favorite Christmas movie, so I’m doing it anyway.
I adore this movie. It’s what my wife and I watch every December when we put up the decorations, our own little holiday tradition. We’ve got it timed so that the last decoration is on the tree just as Jack begins his song in the graveyard. Then we sit on the couch with the house looking like a Christmas Tree shop exploded in it and sing along.
“And for the first time since I don’t remember when/I felt just like my old bony self again.”
I don’t remember actually seeing it in the theater, though I know we did. What I remember is that we couldn’t stop singing the songs the next day and drove out to the mall and bought the soundtrack (on tape) that afternoon. Disney didn’t seem to have a handle on how to market it, and there were very few toys or other marketing items – at least around the movie release. We got each other what we could find for that Christmas, though – I gave Moe a Jack Skellington doll and she gave me an Oogie Boogie that made a horrible croaking noise when you squeezed it. (My cat hated that thing and would attempt to beat the crap out of it every time I brought it out.) I also got a Behemoth toy whose eyes swivel when you rotate the axe in his head, but I can’t remember if that was later.
We still have those toys, actually. Somewhere in storage in the basement.
I’m still not exactly sure what it is about this film that tickled us so. We both liked Tim Burton movies, but not slavishly – I don’t think either of us cared much about Edward Scissorhands, for instance. And Moe hated Batman Returns (mostly because of the Penguin). I liked Edward Gorey stuff, but not enough to even own any of his books, and his work is probably the most identifiable influence on Nightmare (and Burton in general). I’m not that much into musicals, either. No, it was just some unidentifiable combination of the creepiness, cuteness, aesthetic, music, characters and story that struck a chord.
I also can’t discount that it was something new that my wife and I could share early on in our relationship – something we both loved, despite our differing tastes – and that this had an outsized influence on our appreciation. Nothing is as loved by a couple as something you share – and especially something that other people don’t seem to care about as much. Though Nightmare is now a classic it wasn’t immediately appreciated and for a couple of years it almost seemed like something only Moe and I loved. Our secret.
It’s no longer ours, of course. The Nightmare Before Christmas has spawned its own cottage industry of toys, games, books, t-shirts etc. When Disney finally realized how to market it they cranked that machine into motion and it hasn’t really stopped. That ongoing flood of Nightmare related merchandise passed us by, however. (Though I did buy the Xbox game – Oogie’s Revenge.) Our house isn’t full of Nightmare stuff. We never dressed as Sally and Jack for Halloween. We just watch it every Christmas season. As we did this week while decorating.
We’ve got the 2008 ‘Collector’s Edition’ Blu-ray of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I think was the first time it was released on Blu. There have been several releases since then, including in 3D and a ‘sing along’ edition, but this version looks great and comes with a bunch of extras. The movie is also available via streaming on Disney+, and can be rented or purchased at the usual places.
The Nightmare Before Christmas begins in Halloweentown – a place where the monsters and creatures of Halloween live. It’s the end of another successful Halloween scaring all the boys and girls, but Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, but singing voice by Danny Elfman) – the leader of Halloweentown – is full of meloncholly. It’s becoming all the same to him, the routine of the holiday, the spookiness and scares. Wandering off into the woods while the town celebrates he finds a mysterious circle of trees with doorways carved into them. Opening one in the shape of a tree he’s sucked in and finds himself in a completely new place – Christmastown!
I can’t tell you how much this bit of mythology sparked my imagination at the time. That each holiday (though they seem to mostly be American holidays, with Thanksgiving and Independence Day featured) might have its own town, its own traditions and population. Christmas already had this, with the idea of Santa’s Village at the North Pole, but I’d never seen it extrapolated to other holidays before. When the film was first released I actually hoped we’d see more films – a Nightmare Before St. Patrick’s Day or a Nightmare Before Easter. Burton had no interest in that, however, and I can see his point. How do you keep the original film special when Jack’s always falling into other holidays? And where does it end? The Nightmare Before Administrative Professionals Day?
That being said, there’s apparently some talk at Disney about doing another Nightmare Before Christmas film. I just hope it’s not a ‘live action CGI’ recreation like Aladdin or The Lion King.
Jack is, of course, intrigued by this place that is so different from what he knows. The presents, the trees, the good cheer. It fills a place inside him that he didn’t know was empty. And while he can’t quite place his bony finger on why, it’s something he wants desperately. After much introspection and experimentation he finally decides that he doesn’t need to understand it to believe it. And take it over.
It’s funny, in many ways this is a pretty subversive movie. A horrifying skeleton who ‘devastates the souls of the living’ is the hero. A girl who is created out of leaves and patchwork by a mad scientist is the love interest. The outsiders, the monsters, revel in their love for and complete misunderstanding of another holiday that they usurp. But there’s also the conservative side of things – Jack refuses to stay in his lane and almost pays the ultimate price as a result. His view of another holiday is so skewed to his own viewpoint that he very nearly ruins it for everyone. It’s only when things go back to the status quo that we get a happy ending. If you view it strictly from the plot points it’s definitely a “don’t rock the boat” message, but I never really feel that way. I think I take my view from the ending, when Santa rides overhead on his sleigh and brings a little bit of Christmas to Halloweentown. Yes, there’s something to be said for tradition – but a little bit of crossover makes everything shine a little brighter (or get a little darker, if you’re in that mood.)
Things do go wrong, of course. Jack laments later on that the denizens of Halloweentown never really understood, “well how could they?” but Jack doesn’t really get it either. He wants to understand, he wants to share that joy he feels when he contemplates Christmas, but by exerting his influence, by trying to control the thing instead of sharing and experiencing it, he inevitably changes it into something that’s not at all the thing he enjoyed in the first place.
Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) is the voice of concern and reason in this whole shebang, but she’s never really seen or listened to by the authority figures – at least not until it’s too late. Like Cassandra she’s doomed to see and tell of a future that no one believes, though she’s absolutely right.
Throw into this already complicated mix the wild card of Oogie Boogie (voiced by Ken Page), a boogey man for true and one that wants to place his own stamp on Halloweentown. Something he thinks he can accomplish with Jack out of the way. While not my favorite parts of the film, the sequences in Oogie’s lair are some of the most frenetic and psychedelic – with his inevitable comeuppance being a particularly gruesome and icky one. (One of the few moments that’s truly dark enough to cause parents concern for younger kids.)
Things tie up pretty well in the end, though there’ll be fog, dead animal hats, murderous wreaths and military intervention before that happens. A happy ending is always on order for holiday films, and Nightmare is no different – giving us ice-skating vampires in addition to a long-delayed kiss. It’s all hokey, but satisfying.
Though marketed as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – presumably to take advantage of the cachet of his name in the wake of Beetlejuice and the Batman films – the movie is actually directed by Henry Selick, who would go on to make the stop-motion films James and the Giant Peach and Coraline, in addition to working on a number of other projectss. While this is obviously a Tim Burton joint, and the aesthetic is definitely his, Selick’s hand is obvious as well (especially given his later work – Coraline in particular). I love the little details he brings to the scenes – small character moments like the vampires retreating from the sun during “Jack’s Lament” or the mayor’s face change when he first tastes snow.
Danny Elfman’s score and songs are the heart of the film, and it wouldn’t be as enjoyable without them. I don’t generally go for musicals, but I dearly love this one and there are only a couple of songs that I don’t know by heart and sing along with (badly).
I’m sure there are drawbacks to this film, but I can’t think of any. I’m sure my love of the film blinds me to any flaws, but I’m okay with that. Some things you just love without reservation or critique. Some films are just films of the heart, that’s all. This is one of mine.
The Bottom Line
There are some films that just seem to click with you, that fit a missing puzzle piece you didn’t know you had. The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of those films for me. It combines my two favorite holidays in a kid-friendly gothic nightmare with heart, character and catchy tunes. Some people may argue whether this is a Christmas movie or a Halloween movie – and you can decide for yourself if it’s either or both. For me, and for my wife, it’s definitely a Christmas film. And it’s our favorite.