Universally recognizable, The Nightmare Before Christmas grew from a poem in the early ’80s to “the first feature-length stop-motion animated film.” The Oscar-nominated cult classic has been a major source of revenue for Disney over the last thirty years, and yet they initially buried it six feet under.
In Part 5 of our celebration of monumental 1993 films, we’ll explore Tim Burton’s battle to get Nightmare made, his surprising uninvolvement in production, and the way that collaboration and runtime ultimately yielded a masterpiece. We’ll also see how a live-action approach yielded innovative techniques and authentic realism and, most importantly, how the search for contentment made it a relatable classic.
The Road to Halloween was Paved with Good Hinterlands
Tim Burton’s storytelling is recognizable for its unique design. Not just visual hues of shadow juxtaposed against bright colors, but macabre subject matter compared to cultural norms. And that’s one of the foundational pieces in understanding why Nightmare became so pivotal to our culture. Burton is (1) a genius creative with (2) incredible talent who (3) understands relatable storytelling.
In many ways Burton the individual was the original embodiment of Pixar the studio: rejected by Disney only to be reinstituted later. While attending California Institute of Arts, Burton joined the Disney Animation Program and eventually worked on The Fox and the Hound (1981). Burton wrote the poem that inspired Nightmare in 1982 but Disney passed on his pitch of making it a televised special. Disney commissioned him to make Frankenweenie in 1984 but immediately fired him for making a film that was too scary for kids! (That knee-jerk reaction is especially weird considering Disney released The Black Cauldron the following year.)
Fortunately, Paul Reubens (who voiced Lock) wanted him to direct 1985’s Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. That success led to Beetlejuice (1988) where “Burton established himself as an unconventional filmmaker” when mass audiences saw his expressionistic style. Because Disney still owned the shelved Nightmare project, Burton finally asked if he could breathe life into its old bones. Considering his impressive résumé and the fresh box office success of 1989’s Batman, Disney agreed.1 Finally, sweet vindication—production would begin on The Nightmare Before Christmas in July 1991.
The Unfurling of Spiral Hill: Buttressing Through Runtime and Collaboration
The stop-motion animation film holds pretty closely to the poem. Jack Skellington lives in Halloween Town but has grown tired of scaring the human world (whose adults you never see—like Peanuts). He finds a portal to Christmas Town and decides to take over for Santa. But the gifts are twisted versions of real toys, and when he dispenses them it becomes “the nightmare before Christmas.” Jack realizes his mistake, Santa resumes his role, and Christmas is saved.
Because of the change in medium—from written word to feature film—the storytelling runtime allows for more characters, for a deeper plot, and for the resolution to be fleshed out. Jack is certainly the protagonist, but Sally, a living ragdoll created by Dr. Finkelstein, is equally important. More than a love interest, Sally is the enslaved moral compass of the story. While Jack is the self-confessed “master of fright,” there is someone much worse—the antagonist Oogie Boogie. Then there are the rascals Lock, Shock, and Barrel who play both sides of the field. The inspired and literally two-faced Mayor and serious Santa round out the movie’s main characters.
The film’s plot dives deeper into Jack’s feelings of boredom and disillusionment. From the beginning, Burton envisioned even the Pumpkin King could become tired of “the same routine,” but why? Certainly Burton was young and early in his career at Disney; however, he knew an audience could relate to being unfulfilled in life. The setting is fresh because of its gothic fantasy nature and yet, like many of us, Jack’s job and life are intertwined.
Another revolutionary plot addition was Danny Elfman’s score. Not only is the music indelibly memorable but the Oingo-Boingo front man’s lyrics are integral in propelling the storyline forward. Even more impressive is that Elfman performed Jack’s singing voice (while Chris Sarandon provided his speaking voice) and co-produced the film.
In fact, the music and mythos resounded with generations of black sheep. As Kerrang reports: “Fans of goth, punk, and heavy metal…[those who weren’t] evil, just misunderstood…could identify [with] strange and alarming icons who still just wanted to live happily ever after.” The spooky yet fun feel influenced fashion (think Hot Topic) and other animated features that misfits wanted to watch (like Invader Zim).
Finally, the film developed a more satisfying resolution. In the poem, Jack’s sadness at ruining Christmas is offset when Santa brings Christmas to Halloweenland. But even the best Christmas gifts lose their luster, so if we extrapolate poem-Jack’s conclusion, he was shortly discontented. However, once film-Jack learns that Sally’s premonition was correct and he hands the sled reins back to Santa, a deeper meaning is developed.
Although Burton was a producer, he surprisingly had very little involvement with the film.2 Instead, much of the narrative and design belonged to the other seven producers: Caroline Thompson for the screenplay, Michael McDowell for the adaptation, and Henry Selick as director. I believe this collaboration aided in the film’s relatable finale of identity and inspiration.
The Pauline King of Contentment
The film’s third act finds Jack shot down, dramatically draped in a graveyard statue’s arms. The song “Poor Jack” vocalizes his realization that taking over Christmas was a mistake because the problem and solution were misplaced. But his action, even though misapplied, leads to an epiphany: “And for the first time since I don’t remember when, I felt just like my old boney self again.”
If we’re not intentional, contentment can slip through our fingers like Worm’s Wort soup through Sally’s slotted spoon. Jack was bored and melancholy because he forgot his true identity was being the Pumpkin King. And the solution wasn’t to do someone else’s job, but to reinvigorate the passion in his own mission.
While boredom and “too many options” are uniquely first-world problems, disillusionment at being off track with one’s identity is universally human. The apostle Paul struggled with reconciling his identity and inspiration. Contrary to what society promises us, once Paul was rooted in his true identity in Christ, his daily life became much more painful, but he found contentment anyway. After explaining that Jesus died for all the bad stuff we’ve done, Paul says he met the resurrected Jesus. Paul was happily killing Christians, thinking He was pleasing God. But Jesus told Paul that He was God and that Paul’s motivations were misaligned.
Paul was devastated, but Jesus lovingly showed Paul his true identity. This left Paul unable to express how God’s forgiveness works other than by stating, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” One commentator gives insight: “Paul did not reform himself and start over. He was transformed and sent out.” And once transformed, Paul expended maximum effort, inspired to work with his hands or preach or exhort—all because God’s grace empowered him to do so.
Paul’s experience is different from Jack’s independent capability. But if we base our life’s trajectory on a fictional character’s determination, or on what culture confidently promises us, we’re in danger of following the wrong solution just as Jack originally did. Paul is honest: he went through hell on earth but learned contentment—not false contentment, but the kind that can only come from God’s grace and spiritual-natural power.
The Nightmare Scenario: Beauty in the Moonlight
Jack’s newfound fulfillment with his job is a relief, but there’s still a part of him that’s missing. And the film’s final scenes are great examples of what the revolutionary masterpiece does so well: use live-action techniques and imagery to create mood. For example, in the finale Jack travels back to Spiral Hill, the same place he went when he was initially questioning his contentment.
Amidst an insightful theory on imagery, Stack Exchange contributor “Flater” explains, “Part of Jack uncovering his lost love for Halloween entails realizing that Sally and him [sic] are in love, so the scene where Jack and Sally unite is merged with the scene that showcases Jack’s return to Halloween.”
The couple unites on freshly snow-capped Spiral Hill, but it doesn’t seem cold or foreign; the soft lighting from the giant, memorable moon fills the audience with emotional warmth. This lighting was one of thousands of decisions the film’s cinematographer, Pete Kozachik, labored over. In a very technical article (geek out here), Kozachik explains the film’s ambitious attempt at live-action realism.
The second piece to Jack’s contentment was to be connected with someone who balances out his whims and loves him for who he truly is: Sally. The film’s meticulous design means that the audience feels the exact emotions the storytellers want us to feel. The film pioneered new equipment and so many innovative techniques that it not only “revitalized stop motion [sic]” but it was nominated for a technical Oscar (losing to Jurassic Park).
The Nightmare Before Christmas is not just impressive story-telling, or pretty good…for animation, or a great musical—it is a genuinely imaginative and engaging piece of cinema. But I believe the themes of disappointment and the multi-faceted search for contentment were relatable, contributing to the film’s success. If you’ve been living Jack’s nightmare before contentment, consider talking to Jesus about your identity and inspiration.
- However, Disney did release Nightmare through Touchstone Pictures, still fearing it would be too scary for kids. ↩︎
- The Movies That Made Us, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” Netflix, 2020. ↩︎