TMI Remembers: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a 1993 stop-motion animation film about the king of Halloween who stumbles upon Christmas and tries to make it his own to disastrous results. A worldwide box office hit and critical favorite, it is considered one of the greatest films made in the genre and a classic holiday movie.

The thing about CMV5BMTc5MDY0MjkwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTk2Njk3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_hristmas movies is how obvious they are, with a built-in formula that gets recycled year-after-year. It’s rare when studios take a chance on anything risky in making movies, but with Christmas, it seems especially so, as familiar titles pop up every holiday season, featuring the same worn-out plots (mostly about dysfunctional families) and sentimental fluff. Occasionally, something comes along that breaks the conventions, and for their efforts, often become all the more memorable.

Enter The Nightmare Before Christmas, a project that began in 1982, a full eleven years before its release as Tim Burton, then a Disney animator, was tinkering around with an idea for a short television special, working off a poem he wrote that was inspired by the classic Christmas programs Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Disney rejected the proposal, calling it “too weird” and so it languished as Burton eventually lost that job and went on to direct huge successful films, including Beetlejuice and Batman.

Years later though, Disney flipped on the idea and still holding the rights to the story, wanted to make a full-length feature, so Burton came aboard and with fellow former animator turned director Henry Selick, worked a deal where Burton would produce and write while Selick would direct. Also joining was Oingo-Boingo frontman Danny Elfman, who would write all the songs for the film and be the singing voice for the lead character. It would prove a collaboration among all that set a new standard.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
Tim Buron (left), Henrry Selick (right). The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993 ©Touchstone Pictures

The film took nearly three years to animate and produce, as the stop-motion process is incredibly slow and requiring of precise movements. The striking visual designs were assembled on massive sets built on 20 different stages, all with unique inspirations and styles that would give the film its compelling imagery and diverse tonal balance. A monumental achievement, on release, it quickly earned high praise before taking its rightful place as a cinematic masterpiece.

The story starts in the delightfully dark village of Halloween Town, where Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Saradon) the Pumpkin King grows weary of the same old traditions. He’s a gangly, boney fellow with a spirited disposition and a curious streak. Frustrated and disillusioned, he simply can’t take another Halloween the way it’s being celebrated, tired of the same old witches, goblins and nightmare creatures that he sees every day, everywhere. Looking for something innovative as he plans for the upcoming holiday, he wanders out into the forest and discovers something magical in the trees. A circle of doors carved into the trunks. Each are adorned with a design that makes it clear to us what they are, but for Jack, who’s never ventured here before, they are an enigma.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993 ©Touchstone Pictures

Naturally, the one painted like a decorated tree has him most curious and so he gives the knob a spin and soon tumbles inside, traveling through a mystical portal where he finally lands in a heaping pile of glistening white snow. The king of Halloween has just found Christmas Town.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993 ©Touchstone Pictures

Having never seen snow before, Jack first ponders the fluffy white powder, and taken by its wonder, breaks into song, one of the most memorable of the many on the soundtrack. Entitled “What’s this?,” the song is a stirring, enchanting tune about the joy of discovery that sees Jack wisp about a town that is utterly awash in Christmas practice. As Jack wanders through the village, he witnesses townspeople preparing for their own holiday, something that is unlike anything he’s ever seen. Most notably, they are joyful and filled with glee. There are bright colors everywhere.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993 ©Touchstone Pictures

And this is where Jack gets the craziest idea: Wouldn’t all this make for a better Halloween? And so starts his campaign to shift all that he’s learned in Christmas Town and apply it to his holiday, but naturally, he doesn’t quite get the basic concept. But how could he? Being scary and being merry are by definition, opposing. Good intentions are all well and good, but if you don’t know that it means, well, you’re gonna get shot down by the military in a fiery ball of burning sleigh wreckage.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993 ©Touchstone Pictures

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a surprisingly complex story that raises a number of subtle yet progressive themes, including a subplot with Sally (voiced by Catherine O’Hara), a ragdoll-like independent-minded female character who is the love interest for Jack. She was made by Dr. Finkelstein (voiced by William Hickey), a mad scientist who keeps Sally under lock and key, refusing to let her live beyond the walls of his castle-like home. She, however, has learned the art of toxicology and mixes deadly nightshade into his tea, which naturally, in this story, only puts him to sleep for a short time. This allows her to escape once in a while and enjoy the freedom of a walk and the stirring in her heart for Jack. Sure, she might not pass the Bechdel Test, but she’s far more than she seems. She’s is an intriguing character, one who can’t be physically hurt but can emotionally, and even foresees Jack’s disaster in trying to take Christmas, this in the vision of a premonition, in fact, a nightmare before Christmas.

The Nightmare Before Christmas
The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993 ©Touchstone Pictures

There’s also the town mayor (voiced by Glenn Shadix), a politician who is literally two-faced, one side of his head happy and the other sad. And of course, Oogie Boogie, the film’s main antagonist, a creepy worm-filled russet sack voiced by Ken Page, who has plans of his own in dealing with both Jack and Santa. Oogie Boogie is easily one of the most imaginative and wonderfully-realized animated characters ever created, a baritone-voiced, despicable creature that is actually a little frightening but a whole lot more fun. His undoing is a visually creative sequence that deserves more than one look.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true gem, a film that in describing seems unlikely to be entertaining but in the hands of these gifted animators and storytellers is anything but. A bewilderingly imaginative story brought to life by a true and fading art form, this remains as strong and impressive a movie experience as it was decades before. Kick off the holidays again with this classic and get lost in a real Christmas fantasy.

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