The Nightmare Before Christmas - 30th Anniversary Review
Whatever you make of him, Tim Burton is one of the most imaginative filmmakers in modern years. With his freaky designs, oddball characters, and generally wacky storytelling, he left a distinct mark on filmmaking with everything he could’ve unleashed from the vast and warped depths of his imagination.
He started at Disney as an animator before creative disagreements with Disney caused him to split ways with them so he could make his own movies, starting with the cult classic Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. From then on, after that movie became a smashing success, he went on to make classic films that embodied his weird styles of filmmaking, including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Ed Wood, Frankenweenie (made long after his half-hour live-action featurette), and the Batman movies with Michael Keaton.
While working with Disney, Tim Burton conceptualized a poem with Burtonesque illustrations to match, inspired by The Night Before Christmas and his favorite Christmas specials, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. On top of that, he came up with the idea after seeing Halloween and Christmas decorations side-by-side in a shopping mall window. It bore an even more bizarre scenario: a skeletal being on Halloween Town stumbling into the joyous world of Christmas Town and exercising every method possible to practice the tradition himself out of enrapturement, not realizing it would bring about catastrophic results.
Because of Burton’s falling out with Disney, however, he let that idea sit for a while until then-Disney CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give the go-ahead to make this into a full-length animated feature, thinking it has something unique that Disney could benefit from.
Thus, The Nightmare Before Christmas was born.
Before I lunge into the story, I must tell you this: despite the movie’s advertising as “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,” not all of the film was overseen by Tim Burton. Instead, he brainstormed the idea, story, and characters and had a hand in producing the film. Outside of that, however, his close friend and then-newcoming animator, Henry Selick – who you may recognize as the director of Coraline – directed this film for him. Meanwhile, Tim Burton was busy directing Batman’s follow-up, Batman Returns, and potentially Ed Wood. There are only so many movies he could’ve juggled at a time while in the director’s seat.
Now, as for the story?
Let’s get us up to speed on it. In a spooky land called Halloween Town, the citizens celebrated Halloween with tricks, frights, and scares. It helped that every citizen was a famous entity usually associated with the holiday. You name it: witches, vampires, mummies, skeletons, ghosts, clowns, werewolves, etc. Despite what anyone would’ve believed, they were not malicious beings; they scared because that’s what they did best. Their ruler, however, was hailed as the top scarer among them all: the heralded Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington. However, one thing gnawed at him: as proud as he was of becoming the absolute best scarer anywhere, he felt like it had become too much of the same old tricks and frights for him, leaving him to search for something more meaningful, something to spice up his prosperous but monotonous lifestyle.
Later that night, he wandered into the deepest recesses of the nearby forest, and there, he ran into a ring of trees with doors on each of them that led to another world themed around a designated holiday outside of Halloween, from Thanksgiving up to Easter and maybe the 4th of July. However, the door that attracted Jack the most was shaped like a Christmas tree. Curious, Jack opened the door and was sucked into the world of Christmas Town. Everything about this town resembled what we imagine the North Pole to look like, with an entire elf community and Santa’s Workshop all huddled together as all the workers prepared the toys for all the good children just in time for Christmas Day. Once he stumbled into that world, Jack was utterly enamored with all the spectacle, color, festivity, and joyous atmosphere oozing out of every corner. He looked at it as if this was the answer to all his prayers.
Later, Jack returned to Halloween Town, showing them all his discoveries and bringing them home to demonstrate the wondrous town he ran into. After toiling away over the true meaning behind the location and the holiday it celebrated, he ultimately concluded that he and Halloween Town would’ve taken turns providing Christmas cheer for the year.
Meanwhile, though the monsters and creatures of Halloween Town revered Jack for the fright-fest that he was, a living rag doll named Sally had deeper feelings for him, like she saw Jack as someone more than how others saw him. However, she had to wriggle her way out of the grasp of her surrogate father/creator, Dr. Finklestein, who created her as his better half. Her curiosity about the outside world was too addictive and compelling to let it slide, so she took it upon herself to sneak out by – in a manner of speaking – doctoring his favorite teas and soups with deadly nightshade to tranquilize him with.
However, as she fawned over Jack, she witnessed a sign that foretold something horrible to happen because of Jack’s ideas about Christmas. Because of this, she tried to warn Jack not to get in over his head about his plans for the holiday before it’s too late.
While that was happening, Jack enlisted the help of Halloween Town’s three elite trick-or-treaters, Lock, Shock, and Barrel, to help him ‘accommodate’ Santa Claus, or, as Jack described him, ‘Sandy Claws’. He referred to him by that nickname because he misheard of him as a grand, lobster-like figure. However, as Jack trusted the trick-or-treaters to do his bidding, they had other ideas; they really meant to take Santa Claus into the hands of the most despised resident in all of Halloween Town, Oogie Boogie, a talking burlap sack who relished in harming his captives.
What was to become of Jack and his plans for Christmas? Could anyone have swooped in to save Christmas before it collapsed because of Oogie Boogie’s interference and Jack’s misunderstanding of the holiday?
Let me tell you an equally weird story about how I became familiar with this picture. When I was a little kid, I was acquainted with the imagery of such scenes as Jack atop the curly hill and Jack having fun in Christmas Town in the promos I’ve seen of the film in my VHS tapes of such movies as Pinocchio and Homeward Bound. Until much later, I didn’t catch on to the film, Tim Burton’s influence, how he was famous for his dark imagery and weird ideas, or that this movie was considerably much too frightening for kids. It was so dark that Disney released the film under their more general/adult Touchstone Pictures label because they thought it was that terrifying to younger kids. So, I never got a chance to see it during then. But part of that may stem from the general distaste my mother admitted that she had for Tim Burton, not to mention Woody Allen. She always hesitated to watch any of Tim Burton’s films because of the potential fright factor they carried, except for Edward Scissorhands. Now that I can understand, given its message of humility and love, notwithstanding the craziness concerning the characters.
That’s not to say she kept me from watching the movie, though. I was only prone to take her word for it, so I also hesitated to check out this movie. In retrospect, it seemed like she was only expressing her opinions with me while potentially leaving it likely that I could experience it for myself if I desired to and judge it for myself. I should’ve picked up on that, seen it at my own convenience, and used my discretion to judge the movie. But it was not until I was a year away from graduating from high school that I finally saw the entire film from beginning to end. I did so with my mother by my side because I thought maybe I would’ve seen something in the movie that would’ve proven the movie’s worth to her. Now that I think about it, however, perhaps it was a little too prejudiced on my end. All that matters now, however, is that I eventually learned to appreciate my own opinions and respect those of others.
Before then, the closest I was familiar with The Nightmare Before Christmas was when I walked as Sora with Donald and Goofy through Halloween Town and Christmas Town in the Kingdom Hearts games. That was how I became introduced to these worlds before I discovered them again through the movie from which they originated. No matter how I was introduced to it, what also matters is that I was introduced to this movie as I wanted to be and that it’s better late than never.
While the imagery still didn’t sit well with my mother, I was instead smitten by it and the movie’s ideas, especially its music. As I revisited it further, there was a ton more to unpack about this movie that only reverberated within me as I continued to familiarize myself with it.
For starters, let’s talk about the animation and the backgrounds.
What can I say? Everything about the animation was smooth and ravishing, from the 2D hand-drawn animation used as spectral effects to the painstaking stop-motion animation, and they helped give out a stilted yet whimsical method of movement that contributed to the movie’s quirks and charm.
Looking at when it came out, I believe the only other form of stop-motion animation that was popular back then might have been Wallace and Gromit, the Rankin/Bass specials, and the Claymation specials, unless I’m missing some others. However, even though this movie was only a modest hit when it came out in theaters, it still feels as if it helped bring stop-motion animation into the spotlight at a time when traditional hand-drawn animation was still everywhere. Plus, this was a couple of years before Toy Story introduced computer animation to the world.
One of the first main things to note about the movie is the characters’ visual expressions and designs. They each carried a different personality, had fun with it, and in so doing, left a distinct impression that complimented those of others instead of working in competition against them. No one character looked like it resembled another unless they were related. Even if they were, they still carried some shred of distinction to them that separated them from others, in which case, I could tell which character was which very quickly.
Of course, I don’t believe I would’ve told the difference between the elves in Christmas Town, but that didn’t matter. They still honed the general idea of what Christmas Town was like, just as much as the characters from Halloween Town expressed how the town worked, as did the characters who lived and worked there. Each character’s design was distinctive, and they worked into each character’s and landscape’s advantages.
What’s equally as magnificent is the backgrounds. You can see Tim Burton’s creative thumbprint all over the scenery, with the spiral engravings in the ground, the curly structures of some of the locations, the simplistically extraordinary character proportions, the collectively dark atmosphere, and the uneven sense of visual presentation. They all carried a burst of creative energy that entailed a further distinction with the locations’ design, just as much as they did with the characters and their design. Halloween Town was conveyed with a somewhat Gothic atmosphere throughout town, and since Tim Burton was influenced by German Expressionistic art, you can see some of the brilliant contrasts throughout the movie’s dark and light imagery. Even in Christmas Town, it carried a certain oddball quality that separated it from the usual wholehearted portrayals of the North Pole elves and natives. Even the Clauses were portrayed as proportionately larger than in most other specials. I noticed a slight exaggeration in their features, and thus, it honed in more of a unique visual flair to Christmas Town that tried its own spin on things while never forgetting the significance behind what it conveyed.
However, Christmas Town was not the only world in this film oozing with color.
Remember what I mentioned about Oogie Boogie and his infamous reputation within Halloween Town? Well, get a load of his lair. Whereas most of Halloween Town was grayish and murky, Oogie Boogie’s lair was dark but conveyed a sickly, colorful glow. It was populated with skeletons, bats, and cowboys with guns, and their general portrayal highlighted how Oogie’s lair was separate from what Halloween Town established, but in a way that’s more foreboding and dangerous. So, you’d know the characters would’ve been in for a world of hurt once they’re stuck under his watchful eye.
Plus, some of the effects applied alongside the animation were just first-rate. When I saw this movie, I was amazed at how they managed to emulate the fog in Halloween Town or convey Zero, Jack’s dog, as they did with the soft glow and the transparent veil that permeated Zero since he was a ghost. The movie was among the few animated films to have received an Oscar nomination for Best Visual Effects, and it shows. It would demonstrate how much effort and heart the animators put into making this film come alive with the very instances and aspects that give The Nightmare Before Christmas such a dark and vastly imaginary wonderland of fright and joy.
Since I’ve elaborated on the animation of the characters and backgrounds, what do you say I hop on to the characters, too?
Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, was a proud, slender, and intriguing leader of Halloween Town heralded for his expert tricks and frights done every Halloween. Yet his insecurities and desires made him feel identifiable because, more likely than not, many people went through the same frustrating roadblocks and exhaustion he dealt with. His mannerisms suggest that he’s a perfectly mellow guy despite being a living skeleton, and when either it’s Halloween or his friends were in peril, he exemplified how he wasn’t the Pumpkin King for nothing. However, precisely what he mastered that earned him such a reputation for so long, I don’t know. But the idea that whatever he did that made him so scary is left to anyone’s imagination feels a solid attribute to this character and his talents. The excitement he felt when he ran into Christmas Town seemed infectious, and what he meant to do with it, while with good intentions, still came across as misguided and missing the point of the holiday. If I had seen this movie when I was younger, I would’ve been confused as to why Jack was doing something that turned out to be foolhardy or why Sally seemed so against the idea of Jack pulling off a (seemingly) good Christmas. But having watched it since high school, I can now understand it and truly appreciate how much character that gives Jack. In fact, unlike most heroes around its release, Jack is one of those few protagonists who expressed deep flaws and were unaware of them until it came back to bite him. I stated this about Jesse in Free Willy, but while seemingly whole heroes are fine and dandy, having heroes express some flaws and imperfections would’ve demonstrated that not everyone is as black or white as we’d think, and it adds some juicy dynamics to the characters conveying them.
Speaking of black and white, the main villain, Oogie Boogie, felt too simplistic as a villain. All he did throughout the movie was remain in the shadows – at first – attempt to kill Santa Claus just for the fun of it and was reportedly the social outcast of Halloween Town because of his sadism. But much like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book, the collective word-of-mouth said about him for much of the movie’s first half before he finally revealed himself still amped up the creepiness and threat factor apparent with this character. And by the time he revealed himself and his mannerisms were shown ablaze, there was a certain liveliness to him that made him creepy, contemptible, yet delightful at the same time. Plus, his position in the Halloween Town totem pole was interesting since he was the self-proclaimed Boogeyman, meaning he embodied everything going wrong with children. So that invites some intriguing contemplations over how far any citizen of someplace as strange as Halloween Town could’ve gone in doing something for scares or because they meant harm.
Not only that, but two things defined him and contributed to his collective weirdness. One, he, a living, talking burlap sack, happened to be full of bugs and snakes that either came out of him or were spat out. And two, of all the things he embodied and had a fixation for, it happened to be gambling. It’s not just the colors of his lair that were striking, but also its overall themes, which made it look like the Halloween equivalent of a Las Vegas casino. In every corner, you could see card symbols, numbers like what you’d see on craps tables, and a platform representing a large rotating roulette. But it still tied into Oogie Boogie’s personality in spades. Much like how Two-Face from Batman decided the fate of his victims with a flip of his coin, Oogie Boogie decided the fate of his victims with a roll of his dice. How this character came to be or became such a gambling addict, I don’t know. But for all his lightness as a character and even as a main villain, he’s displayed as a minor force to be reckoned with regardless, simply because of what his actions demonstrated of his character that separated him from everyone else in Halloween Town.
Sally, the rag doll, seemed like the epitome of conscientiousness in all of Halloween Town. Having been made by Dr. Finkelstein as a potential mate, Sally resented him for attempting to have her all to himself when she was ready for everything the world had to offer. She’s a bit like Jasmine from Aladdin since she ran away from her father and home to experience the outside world. However, it’s not just her excitement with it. She also broke free because, deep down, she had a crush on Jack Skellington, like she knew Jack for who he was rather than what made him famous. So, this kind of observation was very sweet and admirably girlish. On top of that, it was said in the film that she ran away from Dr. Finkelstein to explore the town on her own on more than one occasion…
Dr. Finkelstein: That’s twice this month you slipped deadly nightshade into my tea and run off.
Sally: Three times.
...hence, her expressing her girl-runs-away-from-home vibes. And, when she suspected that something was not right when she saw premonitions of Jack’s plans with Christmas going all kerflooey, it turned her into the voice of reason in a wacky yet morbid world, even if Sally did so without proof and out of a gut feeling. Not to mention, she’s an adept doll; there’ve been situations where she could’ve unraveled herself, whether it’s her hands, arms, or legs if it was to get something or sneak away. Even if she lost more than one limb from jumping off a high point, she still would’ve lived to sew herself back together. You know, for someone who had feelings for Jack, it is amusing to think that they both could’ve detached their own limbs at will. In ‘Jack’s Lament,’ Jack said he could’ve taken off his head ‘to recite Shakespearean quotations.’ On top of that, Jack said he’s already dead, but what does that make of Sally since she was brought to life? Sally may have been simplistic, but I still can’t help but admire her for her resilience and courteous nature, not to mention her detaching abilities.
As for Dr. Finkelstein, he was more of a standard character who happened to be emblematic of a mad scientist. But even he wasn’t without plenty of outlandish aspects to his character to help him stand out. For instance, his scientific gear is all you need to know to understand what kind of mad scientist we’re looking at. However, he had a bit of an overprotective side, like when he expected Sally to abide by him and be there for him when she became too independent to stick around in the house with him for long. Given his age, it feels like he wanted someone to stick with him during the last few stages of his life, but his possessive means of companionship drove others away from him, like Sally, for instance. At the same time, there’s an inner obsession stemming from him that was determined to extend his inner consciousness and project it onto others with the expectation that they’d have shared his likeness in thinking and processing things, maybe creating things, even. Regardless, it hints at a potential ego problem stemming from him, which explains his scientific experiments’ extravagance. There’s actually so much he expressed out of so little, and that’s pretty impressive to say of someone like Dr. Finkelstein. Later in the movie, it wasn’t shown much, but it showed that he had an assistant to help him with his projects, the hunchback Igor. So, whatever craftiness from Dr. Finkelstein roped Igor into this, it still hints at an eccentric way of creating the most absurd scientific experiments, even if Sally wondered what was stopping him from making others like herself.
The Mayor of Halloweentown felt like a goofball of a mayor, if only on account of what his designs suggested of his demeanor. On more joyous occasions, he’s shown in a very ecstatic, gleeful mood and always with a prominent smile on his face. However, when things started to go south or differently from what he anticipated, his face literally rotated to express a whiter, more solemn face, which always carried a perpetual frown. That’s most obvious whenever he was confused, nervous, frustrated, sad, or uncertain. Plus, it helps his design play into a more stereotypical – but in my opinion, rightfully stereotypical – demonstration of politicians and how they did their work. One minute, they’re putting on a show to convince people everything will turn out okay. But the next minute, they toss aside their façade to reveal that they’re either despondent, self-conceited, selfish, or in a bad mood in a way that they wouldn’t have shown to the public eye. This kind of visual play is pretty clever, if you ask me.
I don’t mean to say it made the Mayor look underhanded. No, far from that. Instead, it demonstrated the versatility of his emotions and in what mood he could’ve been depending on the situation at hand. And in the Mayor’s case, he was always fretful about what was going wrong whenever he wasn’t upright. There wasn’t as much exposure with this character as his position within Halloween Town would’ve suggested, but his mannerisms, figuratively and literally, more than made up for it.
Lock, Shock, and Barrel, the elite trick-or-treaters of Halloween Town, felt like mischievous rascals who lived up to the term ‘crafty.’ When they weren’t trick or treating, they’d be seen, I think, as general troublemakers who caused some mayhem in their own time and as trick-or-treaters, which only heightened their childish natures. However, their methods and actions throughout the movie conveyed a potentially sinister vibe that would’ve made me uncertain about their efforts and whether they carried any legitimate malice in them or if they were general kids being at their most mischievous in the most riotous time of year to be so. Sometimes, they would’ve done Jack’s bidding, while other times, they would’ve stabbed him in the back and done what they intended for Oogie Boogie’s benefits instead. It highlighted their general unpredictability as characters, which helps given that these kids were exceptional at trick-or-treating, so there’s no telling what they felt or would’ve done at any given moment. It’s also interesting to think about how each kid embodied a different essence of Halloween: Lock as a devil, Shock as a witch, and Barrel as a zombie, yet their facial features and body shapes almost matched their Halloween personas perfectly. Outside of not knowing what they would’ve done next, it’s almost like you can’t tell whether they were even in costume.
Returning to Santa Claus, his portrayal in this movie felt like a far cry from the generous, jolly, good-natured Santa Claus we’re used to seeing in other Christmas movies or specials. This Santa Claus, though still carrying an essence of nobility and wisdom, came across more as a grumpy Santa Claus, but given his condition as a sudden captive, who would’ve blamed him? Though I have to admit, I like how he kept a straight face when he was captured by unimaginable beings and at the mercy of a burlap sack who meant him harm when it got so close to Christmas time, the time when he was supposed to have been ready to deliver presents to all the good children around the world. I think he’s the only character in the movie to be memorable not because of what uniqueness he established, outside of him coming from Christmas Town, but because of what his surroundings tested out of him.
Speaking of surroundings, let’s pay attention to the world-building in this movie. It’s not just the design of the backgrounds that helped breathe life into the film but also the world-building structure. The idea is you have all of these worlds that pertained to a designated holiday occurring in any given year – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and so on – and they each acted as an independent world that did their own thing best while oblivious to the other holiday worlds’ existence.
Even Christmas Town, which practically could’ve been just the North Pole, came across as a nonetheless distinct interpretation of an oft-exposed portion of Christmas tradition in terms of how the gifts are all delivered by Santa in one night. On top of that, once it came time to deliver the gifts, the movie showed Jack and, later, Santa Claus doing just that to what seemed like ordinary people living in average cities and towns. It tells me that the so-called worlds that constituted each holiday of the year didn’t exclusively share just one world. They instead existed in correspondence to the world we live in, just to hit home how much work each holiday world knew to put in if they were to make their designated holidays work at their absolute best, like what Santa Claus and the elves must’ve done in terms of getting the gifts ready for delivery on Christmas Eve. We’ve seen that of Jack and all the residents of Halloween Town as they tried to prepare a year in advance how they’d unleash their next round of Halloween frights, and more likely than not, all the other holiday worlds planned to work the same way if they were to pull off another successful holiday each coming year. This thought-processing into the worlds on which the holidays, their corresponding worlds, and our world live all contributed to the mesmerizing, fantastical, and irresistible intrigue this movie unleashes from the first time you watch it.
But things started to go a bit out of whack for everyone when one world caught onto another’s existence, in which case, it makes me wonder: how did the doors that led into each holiday world come to be? I don’t think we’ll ever know, but that’s why the world is so ingenious; it invites us to ponder what would’ve happened if each holiday had its world that coexisted alongside ours and worked with it without wondering what went on outside of them.
Plus, think about it. When you pit Halloween against Christmas, the parallels these two invite would’ve been too irresistible not to think over. Halloween originally started as All Hallow’s Eve, was a Pagan holiday, and was seen as a time when the souls of the deceased were the likeliest to be seen walking alongside the living. By contrast, Christmas came about because it celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, our Savior, thus initiating the value of humanitarianism as only Jesus would’ve practiced it. And when you look at what other otherwise superficial elements were thrown in out of widespread compatibility – devils and ghosts with Halloween and angels and heart-melting fellowship at Christmastime – it’s almost like you’re witnessing an impromptu battle of good vs. evil, Hell vs. Heaven. However, as I pointed out, Halloween Town was far from evil, but instead carried a very warped point of view in life and expressed uncertainties over whether their actions were right, for fun, or if they could have caused more harm than they’re worth, as Jack and all of Halloween Town would have learned the hard way.
Plus, this highlights a potential struggle many people go through. Even the most righteous people could find themselves in situations where they know they could’ve been the next to go or that their time was up but still displayed a show of confidence to keep their integrity in check, while others think they have what it takes to unleash something magnificent without realizing what kind of consequences such enthusiastic recreations could have entailed. The parallels that this story and world-building invite are frankly more immeasurable than I would’ve anticipated, and it only makes me relish and respect The Nightmare Before Christmas more as I sit here writing all of this down.
I already went on and on about how the characters were as memorable as they were thanks to their designs and distinctness, but let’s get to the other reason these characters became so special: the voice acting. Everyone who played their parts in this movie provided a plethora of whimsical, spooky, and even tender vibes to their roles.
Chris Sarandon conveyed pure normalcy and consideration as Jack Skellington. While his normalcy did help hone the more humane and exciting aspects of his personality and dilemmas, he still carried forth a semblance of intricacy that highlighted his role as the famed Pumpkin King. So, he helped convey Jack in all his aspects, from smaller moments to high-and-mightier ones.
Catherine O’Hara sounded transcendent in the roles she played in the movie. First, she was the voice of Sally, and she honed the more delicate, thoughtful, and concerned tenors of her voice perfectly. Every time she played Sally, you could feel her veil of craftiness, especially her undercurrent of consideration and thoughtfulness for others. On occasion, she also displayed some comedic touches to her performance, and they all felt natural while still staying in character for Sally. So, she practically nailed it as Sally.
However, that’s not the only role she did so well. She also voiced Shock, the eldest sister of the trick-or-treater trio. And whenever I heard her voice as this character, I don’t think I would’ve noticed it was O’Hara’s voice. She expressed her rascally nature and witchy habits to a tee, always conveying her more childish sensibilities while honing a more mature outlook on life, given she was the eldest of the three kids.
Speaking of Shock, the actors who voiced Lock, Paul Reubens, and Barrel, which was Danny Elfman, also did an outstanding job. While the voices they lent them were also typically rascally, there’s enough distinctness and personality to each of them to help distinguish each other’s characteristics from the other. Whenever they spoke or sang, they sounded childlike but also childish and conveyed enough mischief in their voices to highlight their unpredictable personalities. So, that’s commendable enough.
Glenn Shadix sold it – or should I say, won my vote? – as the Mayor of Halloweentown. Whenever he was joyous or happy, he sounded like a professional in high spirits. But whenever he conveyed any other emotion, he sounded more desperate and unlike a professional mayor, which may have gone hand in hand with his personality.
William Hickey did the voice of Dr. Finkelstein, and whenever I hear his voice, I can listen to his eccentric vibe fit for a mad scientist, the slight elderly twinge in his voice whenever he contemplated his life conditions, and a slight essence of conniving elements concerning what or who he had possession over, like Sally. Thankfully, as crafty as Hickey sounded when he played Dr. Finkelstein, he kept it so that he would’ve portrayed Dr. Finkelstein more as a crazy scientist instead of someone with black-hearted intentions. After being familiar with him as Rudolf Smuntz in MouseHunt and later as Uncle Louis from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, he sounded excellent in this role.
Ed Ivory conveyed the respectable, authoritarian elements of Santa Claus, but his slight aggression and no-nonsense demeanor, while initially out of place for someone like Santa, felt apropos when I look at what he found himself in just days away from Christmas Day. I can tell that underneath this hard shell was a soft, tenderhearted man who loved children and would’ve done whatever it took to reward those who’ve been good.
And finally, you have Ken Page as Oogie Boogie. Every time I hear him speak as the malevolent burlap sack, I can feel the giddiness and malice in his voice as he partook in unorthodox situations that only the cruelest and most twisted of monsters would’ve taken pleasure out of. Plus, Page was just on a roll, so to speak, whenever he hammed it up as Oogie Boogie; he sounded like he was enjoying himself in character. It brought forth the liveliness apparent in him, outside of just the luminescent glow of his lair and his curious obsession with gambling, and he made him feel theatrical enough for me to develop an interest in him despite all his shortcomings. Whenever he owned it, he really owned it.
Finally, let’s shift our attention to the music.
Danny Elman did the music throughout the film, and as he demonstrated well with what he composed for Tim Burton’s other films, he knew how to elevate something as strange as the story of Halloween and Christmas colliding with morbid whimsy, upbeat quips, grandiose expressions, and ethereal moments of ecstasy, and all of them oozing with a hint of the classic Gothic themes prevalent in Tim Burton’s work.
And – just an observation – he and Tim Burton’s partnership is another example of a long line of director/composer partnerships that whipped up one work of musical gold after the next. Steven Spielberg has John Williams, Hayao Miyazaki has Joe Hisaishi, and Tim Burton has Danny Elfman.
However, it’s not just the music he did so well. Who knew that Danny Elfman proved himself to be an equally talented lyricist and singer?
Let’s look at each song first. Elfman wrote a whopping ten songs for The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they all carried forth a blazing venue of rhythm, soul, and extravaganza to match those of either the world or the characters singing them.
The opening tune, ‘This is Halloween,’ perfectly set the stage for all that’s about to jump out at you around Halloween, with the individuals introducing themselves in song and how much of a role they played in making Halloween the ultimate fright-fest every year. Some of their methodologies may not have added up, but the song still amped the hype for Halloween every time it’s even around the corner.
‘Jack’s Lament’ is a truly riveting, beautifully orchestrated song. Delving deep into Jack’s insecurities as he bemoaned his role as the perpetual Pumpkin King, Jack’s woes were conveyed stunningly through Danny Elfman’s vocals as Jack.
‘What’s This?’ was also held aloft by Danny Elfman’s singing voice as Jack, except on a more upbeat level. The melodies carried forth the same quirkiness apparent from his and Tim Burton’s work, even as Jack assessed something as alien yet indescribably wondrous as Christmas. The melodies accompanying this song resembled how anyone would’ve felt wandering around someplace that completely and utterly entranced them. Little did I know that I heard the same tune played in some trailers for plenty of other movies. When I put the two and two together, I appreciated the song a lot more and admired its flexibility as still pertaining to the creepy and spooky ethics and Tim Burton and Danny Elfman’s collaborative efforts.
‘The Town Meeting Song’ evoked a general intrigue concerning Christmas Town. But whereas ‘What’s This?’ did so in a more excitable manner, this song did so in a more expository, curious way as Jack demonstrated the unfamiliar aspects of Christmas Town to all of Halloween Town as they tried to wrap their heads around it, too. And I must say, Jack’s ways of describing Santa Claus and his legacy to his fellow citizens of Halloween Town were just hilarious.
‘Jack’s Obsession’ perfectly conveyed the more puzzling and challenging aspects of trying to get to the bottom of a mystery gnawing away at you. It was sung mainly by Jack as he tried to understand the true meaning of Christmas, complimented by the uncertainties the Halloween Town citizens expressed about Jack’s fate and whereabouts. But when Jack started to put the pieces together and conclude what he thought Christmas meant, it started taking on a more anticipatory angle as Jack was on the verge of forging his plans for the holiday.
‘Kidnap the Sandy Claws’ oozed in the mischievous, dastardly natures of the trick-or-treaters as they sang about their desires to entrap or kill Sandy Claws whether they involved Oogie Boogie or not. Their imaginative ideas of how to do him in still carried forth the childlike sense of imagination but also the more conniving elements not too different from a serial killer plotting his next kill.
‘Making Christmas’ delivered on the anticipatory events of Christmas from Halloween Town’s point of view as they got all the ‘gifts’ ready for the holiday and Jack prepared to depart in his Santa Claus outfit. The melodies throughout the song conveyed as much utmost pride as the Halloween Town citizens did in their creations, which they thought would’ve expressed the right moods necessary for Christmas when, really, their ideas of the holiday were nothing short of…well, distorted.
‘Oogie Boogie’s Song’ would probably have told you all you need to know about Oogie Boogie. As Oogie Boogie ran amuck through the tones and melodies of the tune as he explained more about himself to Santa Claus, Ken Page oozed in giving Oogie Boogie his personality as he expressed his motivations with Santa Claus in song. It felt as lively and unorthodox as the character himself, as colorful as his lair, and its jazzy rhythms sounded too irresistible to shun away for its implications.
‘Sally’s Song’ carried the utmost melancholy in its tones and melodies, for Sally sang about her concerns for her and Jack’s relationship when Jack flew off to deliver presents as Santa Claus. Yet, there’s a little bit of complexity going on concerning Sally’s feelings for Jack, ranging from feeling short-sheeted by Jack’s carelessness and ignorance as he anticipated his turn to be Santa Claus while also bemoaning whether Jack even sees her as the right one for him, and not just whether she’s right for him. These thought processes were stunningly conveyed as Sally sang her woes of what she feared may have fallen on her and Jack’s relationship and made it clear as crystal.
‘Poor Jack’ also dipped into melancholy territory, only this time it was on Jack’s end. Pure regret was apparent throughout Jack’s voice as he finally understood what he had done not just to Christmas but to himself and even those he entrusted to help carry out his vision. Soon, just like ‘Jack’s Obsession,’ it soon elevated into a more joyous mood, but not without its contemplations, as Jack still felt pleased with what he managed to accomplish with what he found and that it only gave him new ideas for the following Halloween, as he intended to seek.
Finally, As I mentioned several times, Jack’s singing voice was provided by Danny Elfman himself, and he was a terrific singer while also sounding like a perfect singing voice to fit that of Jack. I would never have guessed it’s the composer and lyricist of the movie doing the voice of Jack in song, and he nailed it here, sounding like Jack as much as Chris Sarandon did.
In short, all the songs by Danny Elfman helped convey the characters’ feelings and emotions just as much as his musical score did for the storytelling and world-setting. And they all worked out beautifully and spookily.
And before I forget, what say we look at the story? Besides benefitting from the world-building, the characters, and the morality play, the exciting part of all of this was how the holiday worlds, which abided by their talents and served the accompanying world on their terms without acknowledging the other holidays’ existence, might evoke something else that’s familiar among our culture. And it’s precisely that: the culture. And Jack discovering Christmas Town would feel like experiencing the cultures of another world that’s new, unknown, unfamiliar, yet tantalizing. In our world, it’s the same way. Think about how Great Britain discovered the Native Americans before the land they settled on grew into the USA. Think about how all the countries found each other and caught on to the unique cultures that make each country their own, down to their ethics and practices. The same thing could be said with the holiday worlds. They practiced in their unique ways but potentially never caught on to the others’ existence until some brave souls dared look into the other’s world. In this case, it lends this movie a more universal appeal because of what it reflected and not just what it conveyed.
And for what the movie did convey, I discovered so many creative merits to this movie that it’s not even funny. The world-building is inventive, the animation is spectacular, the designs are imaginative, the characters are distinctly oddball, and Danny Elfman’s music and songs went forth in a blaze of glory. It started small when it came out in 1993, as in, it did not bomb, but it wasn’t a smash hit, either. But its following continued to blossom over time, and the film went from being a cult classic to a straight-up holiday icon. And, it feels more unique as a holiday film, for it had the audacity to tackle two holidays and pit them against each other, leading to some funny, weird, unnatural, unique, and crazy scenarios that such a setup as this would have invited.
Happy Halloween and Merry Christmas, regardless of the time of year!
A high A
In the ‘This is Halloween’ number, on the moon emerged a figure that, while resembling the shadowy part of the moon, also resembled Oogie Boogie long before he made his appearance. It makes me wonder, are these characters one and the same, or are they not? Of course, the moon figure has a deeper voice than Oogie Boogie’s, so your guess might be as good as mine.
Do you remember the opening narration in the movie that clued you into the functionalities of the holiday worlds? It never occurred in the film – though I suspect it was considered for it – but on the soundtrack album of The Nightmare Before Christmas, there was an epilogue highlighting what became of Jack Skellington and Santa Claus long after the insane Christmas of Jack’s making. What happened was that Jack Skellington and Sally did indeed stay together and have children. Plus, both the opening and the ending narrations were provided by Santa Claus himself, which is fitting given that Ed Ivory, the voice of Santa Claus, voiced the narrator in the film. In contrast, Patrick Stewart did the narration in the soundtrack. It was a cute little epilogue introducing Jack’s children as they were “playing strange little tunes in their xylophone band” as Santa visited Jack and asked him how he thought his idea of Christmas went. Also, Santa clarified that after Jack invaded Christmas, each holiday world came to acknowledge the other holidays’ existence. In which case, now I wonder how they would’ve responded or, better yet, cooperated after that. It makes me wish it was added to the movie, but listening to this still made for a nice little sneak peek into what went on in Jack’s life after the end of the film.