Five Things I Love about… The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my very favorite Disney films. It is without question my favorite Burton film, only Corpse Bride and Ed Wood (and maybe Beetlejuice, though I haven’t seen that one in years) offering it any serious competition. And it’s a Halloween tradition for my husband and me. This year we watched our Blu-Ray with the commentary turned on, and we heard auteur-producer Burton note that of all the movies he’s made, this is the most widely beloved, the one whose merchandise he is most often asked to sign. I might dislike some of what he’s done, but even if he’d made no other worthwhile film, he should still be remembered for this one.

My five favorite things about The Nightmare Before Christmas:

The songs. At least 50% of the movie’s running time consists of songs. Haters of musicals will want to stay away, but I’ve loved musicals nearly all my life, and while the melodies are hardly on a par with the best of Richard Rodgers or Jerome Kern, the songs do just what a good musical’s songs should do: illuminate character and advance plot. Each song is just what the story needs it to be. Which is my favorite? The tone-setting “This Is Halloween,” with its ominous driving beat of low strings? The exuberantly tongue-twisting “What’s This?”, inspired, as composer and lyricist Danny Elfman says in the commentary, by Gilbert and Sullivan? The yearning “Sally’s Song,” the emotional core of  the movie? “Kidnap the Sandy Claws,” with its sadistic black humor? “Oogie Boogie’s Song,” with its villainous jazzy swagger? You want me to choose? Nope. Can’t do it.

The look of the film. No “prerequisite” viewing is necessary to enjoy The Nightmare Before Christmas, but those who know a bit about the German Expressionist films of the 1920s should get a special kick out of the weird and wacky designs of Halloween Town, with its crooked twists and angles. By contrast, Christmas Town, into which our disillusioned Halloween hero Jack Skellington stumbles, is a riot of bright colors reminiscent of the happy Who-Ville of Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas — appropriate, since this movie offers an alternative take on Seuss’s story.

Jack Skellington. This movie asks its viewers to identify and sympathize with the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, whose job it is to terrify people and orchestrate all the nightmares and horrors associated with his holiday. Against all expectations, Jack turns out to be a charismatic and engaging hero. We can appreciate his weary boredom with his life, his longing for something new, as he sings in “Jack’s Lament.” Likewise, we share his child-like joy as he explores Christmas Town and believes he’s found just what he’s been missing (“I want it, oh, I want it,” he sing-spiels in “What’s This?”). We can see why the denizens of Halloween Town adore him, because we come to love him too. Yet Jack is unique among movie heroes in that, while we understand his zeal to claim Christmas for himself, we know he’s traveling a wrong path. We don’t want him to succeed. He can only triumph in the long run by failing to achieve his short-term goal.

Sally. Burton’s films are known for their unorthodox, innovative, often iconoclastic male leads, a class to which Jack belongs. Yet the heroines in his films, with the notable exceptions of Emily in Corpse Bride and Lydia in Beetlejuice, tend to be cast as the representatives of convention, regrettably dull and passive. Sally, however, is a Tim Burton heroine I can actually love. True, she does represent “convention” to a degree, but it’s a Halloween Town kind of convention that’s automatically quirky. She’s a ragdoll created by a mad scientist, and she can break herself apart and stitch herself back together when the need arises. She loves Jack, worshiping him from afar, but while a lesser heroine might say, “My man, right or wrong,” when he forges ahead with his plans to take over Christmas, she challenges him and tries to thwart him. What I love most about Sally isn’t so much that she’s the voice of reason as that you won’t find an inch of Quit in all her stitching. Like Jack, she craves freedom and new experiences, and she escapes on a regular basis from the scientist who would like to keep her prisoner. When one plan fails, she comes up with another. She does need rescuing at the climax, but by then she has solidly established herself as an active heroine. She only finds herself in trouble because she alone has the sense and courage to try to rescue Santa Claus from Oogie Boogie’s lair.

The ending. In case anyone reading this blog hasn’t seen The Nightmare Before Christmas (what are you waiting for?), I’ll keep the details vague. I’ll just say this movie has what may be the most sweetly romantic final shot in any movie of its decade. Sigh.

I’ve heard the movie’s detractors complain that it sends a conventional, even reactionary message not to depart from the routine, not to try new things. I suppose if that’s the message you’re looking for, you’ll find it. But I see the movie as a redemption story. Only by departing from convention, by stepping out of the comfort zone that has become more burden than comfort, can Jack re-discover himself and come back home. Taking a risk, even if the risk brings about chaos and results in failure, can yield great rewards. Despite the scares, the movie’s conclusion is a happy one.

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