I acknowledge there are serious gaps in my movie education, and it’s taken me a quarter century to finally watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also acknowledge that Tim Burton’s world is not one I regularly inhabit. As a dippy preteen in 1993 when this movie was released, I opted, and still do, for the babes in bonnets of Austenland. But like Jack Skellington discovering Christmas for the first time, I was overcome with a childish awe by the creativity of the story and animation, both of which hold up after twenty-five years. The movie enchants in a way few holiday films do – The Polar Express is one similar exception. Nightmare approaches Christmas with an absolute childlike wonder that has you seeing the holidays anew.
The magic of Christmas comes via Halloween and trees that act as portals to various holiday realms. Jack (Chris Sarandon), having spooked his way through yet another Halloween, laments his humdrum existence as scarer-in-chief. Life has become too predictable, and in a fit of melancholy, he takes a long walk through the woods to find himself. In doing so, he also finds the tree portals, which allow him to slip into Christmas Town.
It’s a whole new world, and Jack is overcome by the brightness of it all. With a spring in his step, he marvels that the “children [are] throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads,” that kids are sleeping snug as a bug with nothing lurking under their beds. And when he’s not referencing his own experiences, he just takes in the simple stuff – chestnuts roasting on an open fire, kissing underneath the mistletoe. His enthusiasm and sheer wonderment is contagious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in his excitement, even for the commonplace and cliché.
The movie leverages its high concept for real emotion, and it’s easy to see why it has become required viewing, except for me apparently. It has a grand time deconstructing holiday traditions and includes delightful scenes of deadpan levity, all to a soundtrack that mixes strains of menace with a touch of Broadway pizzazz. When Jack returns to Halloween Town bringing great tidings of this mysterious Christmas celebration, he hopes that the residents, which include vampires, werewolves, and various ghouls, will help him stage a well-intentioned takeover come late December. Jack diligently studies up, going so far as to distill the meaning of Christmas on a chemical level. He doesn’t quite get it, nor do his fellow residents. His explanation about stockings prompts a devilish trick-or-treater to wonder if there’s a foot still inside, and they seem most confused by the lobster king, Sandy Claws. Nevertheless, Jack is determined to shake the town and himself out of this ennui.
Creeping in the shadows is Sally (Catherine O’Hara), the monster in a Frankenstein-inspired subplot. She is the creature and captive of Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey) and has an eye for Jack. It’s disturbing to watch her character in the #MeToo era, though I imagine the sexism and abuse were always disturbing. Sally tries repeatedly to poison Dr. Finklestein, who wastes no opportunity to exert his power over her and to remind her that she literally owes her life to him. While Jack is trying to break free of his tedious existence, Sally is just trying to break free.
“This is Halloween”:
Jack discovers Christmas in “What’s This”:
“Kidnap Sandy Claws”:
“Oogie Boogie’s Song”:
Prod: Tim Burton, Denise Di Novi
Dir: Henry Selick
Writer: Caroline Thompson
Cast: Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glen Shadix
Time: 76 min
Country: United States