The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) – Directed by Henry Selick – Starring Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catharine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Ken Page, Edward Ivory, and Paul Reubens.
Of all Christmas movies, Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is my favorite.
Not only is the story of the Pumpkin King attempting to take over Christmas strong and the characters of Jack and Sally wonderfully conceived, but the visual style of the film is distinct, vibrant, and full of motion. NBXM is the kind of film where you really can find something new with each viewing (provided, you know, you haven’t already watched it 348 times) and it is one of the few Christmas movies that is so good I’ll watch in the Holiday off-season.
It is also the film that kicks off the Christmas season for me. Once the Thanksgiving meal has been fully digested, I like to turn my attention to Christmas, which means it’s usually Thanksgiving night or the next that I’ll put up my little fake Christmas tree and string up the lights and get in the Holiday Spirit. NIGHTMARE is part of the tradition.
In contrasting Halloween with Christmas, Tim Burton (who conceived the original story while an animator at Disney), Caroline Thompson (who wrote the script), Danny Elfman (who wrote the songs), and Henry Selick (the director) allow for a visual and narrative clash of the most binary of holidays (although I suppose Arbor Day and the Fourth of July come close).
It’s easy to see a lot of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch in Jack Skellington (talking voice by Chris Sarandon; singing voice by Danny Elfman) given that they’re Christmas outsiders who attempt to steal the holiday away from those who understand, love, and celebrate it, but the comparison breaks down on an important point – where the Grinch is trying to take Christmas away from everyone because it makes him angry at seeing other’s joy, Jack wants to take Christmas over because it brings him a joy he’s never before experienced.
He’s wrong, of course, to steal it away and Halloween-ize the holiday but Jack’s desire to be the one who makes everyone happy instead of everyone terrified comes from a good place, even if he corrupts this ideal through his actions, which include kidnapping Santa “Claws” so he can be the one to deliver presents to the world’s children.
As the film opens, Halloween has just concluded and the residents of Halloween Town are celebrating another successful year by breaking out into song. As they sing “This is Halloween,” we’re introduced to their town and the visual style of the film. Everything here is horrific and mostly colored in hues of dull blacks, greys, and blues, which will contrast with the vibrant whites, reds, and greens of Christmas Town.
After putting in a required appearance and leading the song, Jack sulks off to wander in the woods with his ghost dog, Zero. Jack is having a mid-life crisis, wanting something more than his current life is giving him. Instead of buying a Porsche or dating a Playmate (this is a kid’s movie, after all), he wanders all night and ends up at a place in the forest that serves as a nexus point between the holiday towns. Intrigued by the Christmas tree imagery on a tree, Jack opens the door and gets sucked down to Christmas Town, where we’re treated to the finest song in the movie and one of the finest Christmas songs of all-time, “What’s This?”
“What’s This?” is Jack’s wide-eyed, virginal interpretation of the goings on in this snow-filled wonderland. He is fascinated by the joy, the presents, the baking pies, the factory where gifts are made … Christmas Town is very much presented as the opposite of Halloween Town in terms of it’s style and feel, but underneath the different feel, it performs the same function – to run a holiday.
Jack is attracted to both aspects. With Halloween bringing on the doldrums in him, the brightness of Christmas Town reinvigorates him, but he also sees it as something he can take over; since he already has experience running one holiday, why not attempt running another?
Jack’s attempt to explain Christmas to the citizens of Halloween Town is wonderfully disastrous as they simply cannot fathom this different holiday, continually undercutting Jack’s description of the wondrous by questioning if what Jack really meant isn’t much more traditionally horrific. Since his desire is to take ownership of the running of Christmas, Jack runs with it, giving the town what they want and assigning tasks to each of them dealing with his production of Christmas.
Everyone in town enthusiastically goes along with what Jack wants because it’s Jack and he’s their local hero – everyone, that is, except for Sally, the lovesick rag doll that adores Jack from a distance.
Sally was created by Doctor Finkelstein (William Hickey), the town’s mad scientist, to serve as a companion/servant. Sally keeps poisoning him so she can leave the house and go experience more of life. Sally is a wonderful character; on the one hand she’s very childlike in her crush on Jack, but she’s also very much an intelligent young woman coming into her own. She decides she wants to leave the safety of Finkelstein’s lab and she decides to help Jack from a safe distance.
It’s Sally, alone in the town, who sees that Jack’s heart is in the right place but he’s going about it in completely the wrong way. Her crush blossoms when she realizes that they both want more out of life than the role they have been given, but she struggles to get that idea to penetrate Jack’s thick-headedness.
While Jack is off playing Santa Claus and delivering nightmarish presents to the kids of the world, it’s Sally who breaks into Oogie Boogie’s place in an attempt to rescue Santa Claus. It’s unfortunate that she fails and needs Jack to save them both (Jack comes to his senses after the military blasts him out of the sky) because it fails to allow her to be the physical hero of the piece to match her film-long emotional heroism.
Santa recognizes Sally as the only person in the whole town who makes any kind of sense, and Jack ultimately realizes it, too, and we’re treated to a traditional, romantic, fairy-tale ending.