I’m a huge fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I was one of the lucky ones who saw the film in theatres opening night 24 years ago this weekend, when Disney wasn’t sure what to do with the film. I loved it. Seriously, loved it. I bought the book on the “making of” and even the storybook Tim Burton created, retelling his original poem with his unique pen and ink illustrations. But not everyone was a fan, and few people saw the film during its original theatrical run.
Oh, it wasn’t a flop per se, but it wasn’t a blockbuster. And Disney didn’t know how to market the movie. They almost didn’t let it be known it was a “Disney” film and released it under the Touchstone banner originally. I went to work for Disney right after the film was released and the shelves of my Disney Store was full of toys and action figures and collectibles with the macabre yet lovable characters–all slashed to 75% off and hoping someone would take them home.
The film was different than anything Disney had done in those days. The characters were a little less cute, the colors less vibrant, and most of the songs were sung by the guy from Oingo Boingo. In 1993 these were not what people expected from Disney, whose last three animated films had been The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. They were on a roll with Alan Menken. And along came this film with a mostly grey and black color scheme, creepy looking characters, and a storyline that is somewhat unusual.
In the years since, however, Nightmare has become a key part of the Disney franchise. Jack Skellington hosts the annual Halloween fireworks at Disneyland, and his friends take over the Haunted Mansion each year. The character merchandise is everywhere, from Disney Stores to Hot Topic, and it’s become annual holiday viewing for many families. For a movie that grossed barely $50 million over its entire theatrical run, that’s pretty darn impressive.
I’ve always loved this movie. I believe it’s Tim Burton’s greatest film, a brilliant piece of filmmaking, and a fantastic musical to boot. Here are 5 reasons why I believe The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of Disney’s greatest films.
5. It’s a Triumph of Design. Nightmare is one of those rare films where the “look” is essential to the story and plot. Tim Burton’s unique character designs are carefully crafted in minute detail in every area of the film. Every part of Halloweentown has the scratchy pen-and-ink look of Burton’s original sketches, while Christmastown puts off a Seussian vibe, full of bright colors and blocky shapes. Even better, when Jack goes off on his sleigh ride, is the suburbia of Burton’s imagination (and the 1960’s). Every detail is perfection (down to the fireplace tools used to ward him off and the pajamas the kids wear), and clearly thought through. When worlds collide, it’s clear they exist in the same universe, but are all beautifully different from the others. And while Halloweentown is the darkest of the film’s worlds, it also feels the most real, most lived in. Perhaps it’s a subtle hint from the filmmakers that our world is a little darker than we like to admit.
4. The Animation Still Astounds. When the film came out, most people thought of stop-motion animation as dated and very old school: the old Rankin-Bass television specials like Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer with its herky jerky Santa Claus, cellophane water, and bad effects. Nightmare changed all that. Nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects (it lost to the digital dinos of Jurassic Park), it was unlike anything ever seen before. The characters moved fluidly across incredibly detailed sets. The lighting was dark, light, and everything in between, and the camera moved up and around like shots in a live action musical. Henry Selick’s ground-breaking embrace of a dying art form was odd in 1993. In this distinctly digital age, it’s revolutionary, and it looks as fresh today as it did 24 years ago.
3. The Songs. Imagine Nightmare without its music. Imagine if there was no “What’s This?” or even “Making Christmas.” The songs in this film aren’t just there to sell a pop record, or even to help move the plot along. Danny Elfman’s songs are integral to the storyline, and even tell the story for the most part. One could listen to just the music and know exactly what happens in the story–an impressive achievement, sure. But the songs aren’t just good at telling the plot. They beautifully express the hopes, dreams, and even fears of the characters. Whether it’s Jack’s opening song, or the incredible “What’s This” when he discovers Christmastown, they are lyrically dense, musically light, and stunningly orchestrated. The alto sax playing counterpoint to Jack’s vocals on “Jack’s Lament” highlights the melancholy at the heart of the story. What’s amazing is that even exposition-heavy songs (“Making Christmas” or “Town Meeting Song” are great examples) manage to be extremely hummable as well. These are some of the greatest “Disney” songs ever created.
2. A Surprisingly Deep Message for a “Halloween” Movie. Because of its seasonal nature, Nightmare tends to be thought of like those Rankin-Bass specials from the 1960’s and 1970’s, brought out once a year as a celebration of the holidays. But this isn’t a film about Halloween anymore than Moby-Dick is a novel about a whale. There’s an incredible depth to the story that is missing from most animated films. Jack’s dilemma doesn’t come from lack of success, but because of too much success. The story makes clear that this Halloween was even better than last year’s–so what’s the problem? It comes down to a word we don’t use much anymore: purpose. All of us have a purpose to fulfill in this world, and when we forget our purpose–the reason we exist–it messes things up for everyone. Jack eventually redirects the entire population Halloweentown to take over Christmas, and the reason they fail so spectacularly is because Christmas isn’t their purpose–they exist to scare people. When we forget our purpose, we forget ourselves.
1. It’s Not About Kids or Youthful Heroes. It’s About Adults. Unlike Airel, or Belle, or Aladdin, Hiro, or even Judy Hopps, Nightmare is a film all about adults. Yes, it has children in it, but the kids aren’t the focus. At its center is a full-grown adult having an existential crisis that any man or woman can relate to: successful career, pretty good home life, but feeling like something is missing. Jack Skellington has been doing Halloween for a very long time, and although he enjoys it, his life has lost the zing. He desperately wants something more. And also unlike other Disney heroes, its vague. He doesn’t want to go to a ball, or get off the streets, or get revenge for his brother’s death. He has what used to be called ennui: “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.” How many mid-life crises have arisen from this soul-crushing discontent?
Although The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t listed in the pantheon of Disney animated films, it rightly deserves its place there. As we celebrate 24 years with Jack and Sally, I think it’s clear why.
Toward the end of the film, Jack’s Sandy Claws suit is in tatters and he has been blown out of the sky by a a major misunderstanding of his motivations. In a graveyard full of burning wreckage, he sings that “all I ever wanted was to bring them something great.” But more than that, it awakened in him something he hadn’t felt in his life for a long time. When Jack finally comes to the realization of who he is, it is safe to say that he will fully devote himself to making Halloween the most amazing thing he can. He has discovered who he is. Now he can fulfill his purpose and be all that he is intended to be: he’s not Sandy Claws. “I, Jack, the Pumpkin King,” he sings, and realizes, “That’s right! I am the Pumpkin King!”
Nightmare is one of Disney’s best because, in its own wonderfully weird and macabre way, it reminds all of us that we have a purpose. We were created to do something that only we can do, and we need to fulfill our destiny. It’s one thing for teenage princesses to try and figure this out. It’s nice to have an animated musical that reminds adults of this as well.