The Disney renaissance gave us some of the most beloved films in the Disney library. Although not considered part of the official renaissance list of movies, The Nightmare Before Christmas was released in 1993, the Disney renaissance’s early years. Like its predecessors, it is still beloved 27 years later. Despite the thin plot, the vast dedicated fanbase still pack movie theatres in October all these years later. With so many holiday movies quickly forgotten, with only a few reaching “classic” status, what makes this film special among its contemporaries?
Tim Burton wrote the story with Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson and left the directing to Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach / Coraline). Even though Tim Burton wasn’t behind the camera, his signature style is apparent. What makes his gothic style unique is that the gothic imagery seamlessly harmonizes with vibrant images—the mixture of gothic and lively transitions well to the characters we see on screen.
Each side and ancillary character has a fun energy and personality that add to the world as we follow the story along. Jack Skellington (Danny Elfman / Chris Sarandon) is the pride of Halloween town as the Pumpkin King, yet is open to new ideas and naïve with good intentions. When attempting to make a snowflake with paper, he makes a spider on a web, showing no matter how much he will try, his place is in Halloween town. His anticipation and vigor for this newly discovered holiday blind him from seeing that he will ruin Christmas, not improve it. My favorite part of Jack is that he ruins Christmas, accepts it, and fixes the problem he caused by getting Santa Claus (Edward Ivory) back in the Christmas eve skies. To a child, it’s powerful to see the main character fail, not let it upset them, and move forward.
I appreciate the creative team visually and musically for this film. Danny Elfman not only was Jack Skellington’s singing voice, but he was the composer for the film. The music in Halloween town is written in a minor key, while Christmas town (“What’s This?”) is a major key. The music reflects the internal conflict that Jack is feeling. When we meet Jack for the first time, he is bored (sad even) with what his life has become Halloween over Halloween. Christmas is new and exciting and gets Jack out of the rut he is in by focusing his energy on the new untapped holiday.
The difference between the two towns is represented visually by way of juxtaposition. The most prominent is how the two towns prepare for Christmas. In Halloween Town, they prepare like they would for Halloween, by scary and dangerous items or “toys” packed in dark boxes and ribbon. In Christmas Town, the characters are jolly and understand what preparing for a holiday entails and what the people expect for gifts. The two towns are only in synch when the authorities make their announcements to the townspeople. In Halloween Town, the Mayor (Glenn Shadix) rides through the town to announce that Jack was blown out of the sky. In Christmas Town, the police ride through the town to inform them they cannot locate Santa.
The first song in the film is “This Is Halloween,” which is more than a catchy tune; it shows how everyone in the town is good at something Halloween related and their Halloween night job. As mentioned before, the Halloween town music is written in a minor key until the end. When “This Is Halloween” starts at the end of the film, it begins in a major key until the town joins in, going back to minor. This beautifully illustrates that Jack is back and can mesh with the town once again. My favorite song in the film is “Making Christmas.” I like it because musically, it tells the audience so much more than we initially realize. They model the melody after the Dies Irae. Musically the Dies Irae is used to represent death. At this point in the film, the music says that Jack is going to kill Christmas before we see it on screen.
My second favorite song in the film is “Jack’s Lament.” I relate to his “I want song” and his wish to experience something new and get out of the funk of repetitive and predictable traditions and expectations. The song, coupled with Jack’s scene with the moon behind me, has gotten me over one funk. Sally (Catherine O’Hara) is the only one that understands how Jack is feeling. She expresses this to herself, and perhaps this relationship can be heard musically. Other songs like “Oogie Boogie’s Song” and “Kidnap The Sandy Claws” are catchy and amusing, enhanced by the talent and billowy pipes of Ken Page.
It’s no surprise the film has captivated audiences for 27 years. Because of the dark themes possibly being too much for their target audience, Disney released the film under their more mature film label, Touchstone Pictures. Besides becoming a cult hit with critical and financial success, Disney has reissued the artwork under their brand with 3-D re-releases, video game collaborations with SquareEnix and the Kingdom Hearts series, and awards that stand the test of time. What started as a poem and a side art project for an unknown animator in Walt Disney Productions in the 80s has continued to be a hallmark of their library today. The soundtracks are covered and released by top artists and hits on the leading streaming services today. The Nightmare Before Christmas has recently earned the #1 ranking in Rotten Tomatoes “Top 25 Best Christmas Movies” list. Whether it’s the style, music, or the Oingo Boingo power of Danny Elfman, The Nightmare Before Christmas will undoubtedly continue to be a holiday favorite.