They’re ugly, creepy and they love to scare. That’s their job, but they’re not mean, in the town of Halloween. For all the cheekily bad little boys and girls in the world, former Disney animator and feature film director Tim Burton (Batman, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) presented The Nightmare Before Christmas, a holiday greeting from ghosts and goblins everywhere.
Based on a story dreamed up by Burton during his Disney days, The Nightmare Before Christmas was brought to stop-motion life by director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach), with a memorable song score by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman.
The story opens with an introduction to Halloweentown, one of many strange lands where holidays are made. Chief among Halloweentown’s ghoulish inhabitants is Jack, the Pumpkin King, a spindly skeleton with a softball-shaped head and a pet ghost dog named Zero. Another Halloween has gone off without a snag-best ever, even-but somehow Jack just isn’t satisfied. Wandering out past the pumpkin patches and spooky knolls of Halloweentown, Jack finds the doorways to other holiday worlds and falls smack down into the snowy cheer of Christmastown.
Inspired by what he sees, Jack decides to make Christmas his own. After dissecting the holiday in his home lab, Jack makes his proposal to the assorted witches, vampires and evil clowns of Halloweentown, who don’t quite get the concept. Jack’s would-be girlfriend, a stitched-together rag doll named Sally, thinks it’s a bad idea, but Jack puts his compatriots to work making spooky Christmas trappings and dangerous toys.
To make sure he’s flying solo on Christmas Eve, Jack has diabolical tots Lock, Shock and Barrel kidnap “Mr. Sandy Claws,” but the three have a separate loyalty to the thoroughly evil Oogie Boogie Man. Jack takes off in his coffin sleigh pulled by skeleton reindeer, but his biting, screaming, chasing toys don’t exactly spread yuletide cheer among the children of the world. After being shot down by military jets, Jack realizes his mistake, but is it too late to save Christmas?
Clearly influenced by Mad Monster Party and other Rankin-Bass stop-motion classics, The Nightmare Before Christmas took the technique to stunning new heights. Jack’s world was unlike any audiences had ever seen, and the story was a far cry from the usual Disney fare. Disney released the PG-rated film under its more “adult” Touchstone division, where it gained an instant and loyal fan following. Spooky toys, costumes and other specialty items hit the collectibles market, and Elfman’s score (he also provided Jack’s singing voice) became a hit in its own right.
The mild frights kept many younger tykes out of the theaters, but the imaginative style, easy-to-grasp moral and wickedly gleeful holiday spirit made The Nightmare Before Christmas mandatory seasonal viewing for those who believed that “life’s no fun without a good scare.”