WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for The Nightmare Before Christmas
Merry Christmas, everybody! Unless you’re reading this after Christmas in which case this intro bit is a little awkward now but whatever. The point is, is that I love Christmas and like most people, I have my own personal traditions I like to uphold. One of those is watching a certain movie. We all have at least one Christmas-related film or TV special we love to watch during the season and mine is The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Chances are you’re at least familiar with the film or recognise it’s main character, Jack Skellington, the ruler of Halloween Town who has grown bored of his holiday and winds up discovering and becoming enthralled with Christmas. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend you do so, even if you’re not a fan of Tim Burton’s work. I personally avoided it for years as a child because it was “too scary” but, only five or six years ago, I found myself being drawn to it and eventually watched it. It immediately became one of my favourite films ever and this article is all about the reasons why I love it so much. So, grab yourself a mince pie or some other Christmas related snack and read on.
1. The Animation
I grew up watching a lot of Wallace & Gromit so, as a result, I’ve always loved watching stop-motion animation. As a kid, I didn’t really understand how it worked but, as an adult, I have ungodly amounts of appreciation and respect for people who commit themselves to this style of animation, especially in the case of this movie.
You don’t notice it on a casual viewing but, if you take the time to really look at it, you’ll realise how much time and effort must’ve been spent on seemingly the most basic of things.
Characters are never just standing about completely still until they need to speak, facial expressions are always changing and matched to the movements, traditional stop-motion is blended together with additional effects and CGI and the like, and it’s done so flawlessly, you almost forget that these are just clay figures. There are so many moments where I find myself thinking “How the bloody hell did they do that?”
I’m sure there are people who could it put far more eloquently than me but, basically, I love just looking at this movie. It’s detailed, charming, atmospheric; it’s pretty much perfect.
2. The Music
Do I even need to explain this one? Danny Elfman’s style of music has become synonymous with him and, while you can argue that all his scores sound too similar to each other, it doesn’t change the fact that his work here was fantastic.
From the moment you hear the opening song, This is Halloween, you know you’re in for a treat as it perfectly establishes the world and attitude of Halloween Town’s residents. There’s a reason you hear it every Halloween.
Following that, we have Jack’s Lament that manages to not only be spooky but tragic, putting across a variety of emotions and even a bit of nostalgia on Jack’s part as he recalls how much he once enjoyed Halloween.
But to counteract these, you have Christmas-y and festive jingles in the form of What’s This?, easily my favourite song in the movie. Hearing Jack discover Christmas for the first time and describe it in wonder and amazement takes me back to my childhood a bit; a time when Christmas was brand new and really felt magical. That’s not to say those feelings have died, but this song keeps them rejuvenated; I’m always tempted to burst out singing this during the season.
The Town Meeting Song isn’t that memorable but it’s incredibly catchy as you listen to it. Seeing the inhabitants of Halloween Town fail to grasp Christmas is entertaining but also a bit disconcerting how they twist normally such happy and festive ideas, even if they genuinely love the concept.
Jack’s Obsession has recently become a favourite; starting slow and methodical as Jack struggles to grasp what Christmas is. The rhythm almost feels like a painful thumping to represent Jack’s ever-growing frustration. The pace gradually quickens as the stress gets to Jack before ending on a bombastic note as Jack realises he doesn’t need to understand it and, in his madness, decides to take Christmas for his own.
After that, we have two (sort of) villain songs. Kidnap the Sandy Claws is suitably nerve-wracking and intense; the trick-or-treaters’ turning a simple plan to capture Santa into what sounds like torture and supposedly MURDERING him. It’s even more distubring considering their children.
Following that is Making Christmas, which I describe as a ‘sort of’ villain song because while the Halloween Town residents have no evil scheme and simply want to have a go at Christmas, the track is dark and heavy; their joyful cheers seeming menacing and a tad disturbing.
Then we have the actual villain song, Oogie Boogie’s Song. I remember falling in love with this one the moment I heard it as it perfectly sums up Oogie’s character. It’s got a sense of jazz to it, almost like the kind of thing you’d hear in a Las Vegas casino, only twisted into sounding more ominous and, for lack of a better word, evil.
And then there’s Poor Jack, a simple, slow yet melodramatic track that matches with Jack’s horror and depression at realising what he’s done before slowly but surely becoming more optimistic, rising to a crescendo as he realises that his love for Halloween has been invigorated. In retrospect, this is actually a great contrast with Jack’s Obsession; both tracks depict Jack having an internal crisis, resulting in an enthusiastic declaration.
The only music track that I’m not all that fond of is Sally’s Song but there’s technically nothing wrong with it. It’s perfectly fine, if a little bit bland though it does get a pretty heartwarming reprise at the very end as Jack and Sally embrace.
Even the background music is great. While it may not be as memorable as the songs, the rest of the score always fits the mood of the scene and enhances it – it never feels out of place. I’ve grown particularly fond of the track that plays as Jack performs his Christmas experiments; it further highlights his interest and confusion.
I’m surprised I rambled on this long on the music alone but I think this shows just how damn good it is. I admit, I’ve not listened to much else by Elfman but if I did, I’d probably still say this score was the best.
3. Oogie Boogie
This is going to be a short one but I figured I’d mention it anyway – I actually quite like Oogie Boogie as a villain. Admittedly, he doesn’t do all that much and he only exists for the sake of having a bad guy but, for some reason, I find him really entertaining.
I’ve already mentioned how much I love his villain song but, despite being a bit of a one-note character, he’s bizarrely enjoyable to watch. He takes so much pleasure in being a massive dick; the only reason he wants to eat Santa is just because he can. Not to mention, he oozes quite a lot of personality.
I think it may come down to his voice-acting. Ken Page manages to do a lot with what little he really has, turning what is ultimately a generic baddie into the egotistical, cheating, cowardly asshole that we know.
I don’t consider him underrated in comparison to other Disney villains, but he’s entertaining and, sometimes, that’s more than enough.
4. Jack Skellington’s character
Okay, this is the big one and probably the main reason why I’ve wanted to write about this movie for so damn long. The fact that Jack Skellington, the ruler of Halloween Town, the Pumpkin King, this tall, gangling skeleton with no eyes, is quite possibly one of the nicest people you will ever meet in your life, thanks in part to both the writing and Chris Sarandon’s voice acting. I’m serious; go re-watch the movie if you don’t believe me.
The focus is very much on Jack’s obsession with Christmas and while he is depicted as being very much in the wrong for going to such lengths (i.e. kidnap Santa and forcibly take over), he’s not doing it out of any sense of malice. He’s not the Grinch trying to steal Christmas from everyone else. He’s in love with it and is desperate to understand it; he just can’t figure out how and it seems the only way he can is to experience it. Considering how magical Christmas is, you can’t really blame the guy for wanting to know more.
Look at him when he’s in his Santa suit, delivering presents. He does it with so much glee and joy, it’s hard not to crack a smile. If it wasn’t for the fact that the presents he was delivering were, well, terrifying, he’d easily make a fantastic Santa.
And, again, he’s not malevolent or anything. Even when he has Santa tied up in a bag, Jack doesn’t speak in a mocking tone like some supervillain. He’s genuinely excited to meet him and, while Santa definitely didn’t appreciate it, Jack was trying to be sincere to him. It’s like when a child paints a picture and is really proud of it but they’ve also managed to make a huge mess. Jack doesn’t realise what he’s done; he’s just too pleased to meet Santa and get a shot at Christmas that he doesn’t take what Santa has to say into question.
There are even a lot of one-off moments that highlight how sweet of a skeleton Jack really is. Look at the way he tries to encourage everyone as they prepare for Christmas. The toys they’re making are far from being actual Christmas presents, but he doesn’t lambaste them or lash out at them for not understanding; he just keeps telling them not to give up and that they’re still doing a good job. He’s like one of those really enthusiastic bosses that’s always shouting “Go Team” when anything good happens.
One tiny moment that I think gets overlooked is his reaction to Lock, Shock and Barrel mistakenly kidnapping the Easter Bunny. While he’s infuriated that they captured the wrong guy, he makes a point of apologising to the clearly frightened bunny, and not in a backhanded way; he seems genuine. He even makes a point of telling the kids to take the bunny back home and apologise to it again. I know this is a little thing to obsess over but it really struck out for me.
Oh, and let’s not forget the scene where Jack is giving everyone specific jobs in preparation for Christmas. Not just because he’s, again, so enthusiastic and genuinely believes these people are perfect for their respective roles but also because of his treatment towards Sally.
Granted, Sally is trying to warn him that his Christmas is going to be a disaster and he’s not listening but there’s a single line during it that I absolutely adore for some reason.
Jack wants Sally to make him his Santa outfit but Sally says it’s a mistake (referring to Jack’s Christmas) but he responds with “Now don’t be modest. Who else is clever enough to make my Sandy Claws outfit?”
Throughout the film thus far, it’s sort of implied that Jack doesn’t really know who Sally is or even acknowledges her all that much. We don’t ever see her interact with the other Halloween Town residents and the only time she ever gets to leave the lab is when she’s drugged Dr. Finklestein. Yet here, it’s made clear that Jack knows full well who she is and considers her to be the only one he trusts to take what Jack considers to be a very important job.
I know it sounds like I’m overanalysing this but these moments really help make Jack the great protagonist that he is. Without them, he’d just be an annoying douchebag who refuses to listen to anyone. But because it’s established how nice of a person he really is, it makes him more tragic. When his Christmas falls apart, we don’t think to ourselves that he deserved it; he earns our sympathy because he tried so hard.
I easily consider Jack to be one of my favourite characters ever, and he’s a key part as to why The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t just my regular Christmas movie but one of my favourite movies period. If you’re still in the festive spirit, I heartily recommend you watch this. You may fall in love with it like I did.