I have a confession to make: Before this week I, Toussaint Egan, avowed lover of animation and all things dark and spooky, had never seen The Nightmare Before Christmas. I know, this is a shock; I’ll give you a moment to process and collect your jaws from the floor.
If you are one of the countless movie-goers who have already rightfully fallen in love with Tim Burton and director Henry Selick’s 1993 stop-motion animated classic, you might be absolutely baffled at why or how it could have taken me this long to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas. The truth is I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life, and as a consequence, I just sort of took it for granted.
But there’s good news: I was wrong, The Nightmare Before Christmas is great, and even if you think you know the story of this movie from the pervasive merchandise or cross-media tie-ins, there’s plenty that will surprise and delight you.
The characters of Jack Skellington, Sally the rag doll, and Zero the ghostly hound were nigh ubiquitous to me as a child during Halloween, and even more so when I started high school, where many of my classmates would routinely sport t-shirts, keychains, and other accessories they had presumably purchased from Hot Topic. Ironically, it was this ever-present merchandise that fueled my lackadaisical “I’ll get around to watching it eventually” attitude towards the film.
It’s not like I didn’t respect Tim Burton or Henry Selick; 1989’s Batman is one of the earliest movies I can remember watching in a single sitting, and I have fond memories of watching and enjoying James and the Giant Peach. It’s just that I felt like I had pretty much gleaned everything about the movie via cultural osmosis. Plus I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the gist of it thanks to playing Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts 2. What more did the movie have to offer?
It was only after finally sitting down to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas that I realized just how hasty that presumption was. The bleak and twisted artistry of Selick and Burton’s magnum opus — Batman: The Animated Series shaped my tastes and sensibilities from an early age — would have totally been my shit during my teen years. To the surprise of no-one, I loved it; the film is a genuine wonder of stop-motion animation and an enduring testament to the craftsmanship and creativity of every member of its production team.
Danny Elfman’s score is so tremendously entertaining, it’s difficult to imagine a version of The Nightmare Before Christmas that’s the pop cultural phenomenon it is today without it. While I was familiar with “This Is Halloween,” I hadn’t realized that the majority of the film itself was a musical, a fact that images alone can’t truly do justice to convey. From the theme song to Oogie Boogie’s villainous ode, the soundtrack is chock full of quippy quotables and clever turns of phrase.
I feel like it’s only right to point out the things that surprised me during my first-time viewing. First of all, I was shocked that Jack and Sally weren’t already an item from the start of the movie. As the couple so aptly sing in the film’s final moments, it’s plain as anyone can see they’re simply meant to be. I also couldn’t believe Jack went as far as kidnapping Santa Claus in order to impersonate him, nor did I expect to see the U.S. military resorting to shooting Jack down using anti-air artillery.
Considering how prominently Oogie Boogie is portrayed as the diametric opposite to Jack Skellington in media associated with The Nightmare Before Christmas, I expected him to be much more than the minor antagonist he is in the film itself. He doesn’t show up until roughly halfway through the second act, and even then, his villainous aspirations are relatively tame when compared to Jack’s own overzealous machinations. He doesn’t even try to make a power play to become the new de facto leader of Halloween Town; he just wants to menace Santa Claus and be a creep. Not exactly the level of ambition one would expect from a baddie otherwise portrayed in Kingdom Hearts as rubbing shoulders with some of Disney’s greatest villains.
The most surprising thing I learned from finally watching The Nightmare Before Christmas was realizing just how short it actually is. The film crams an incredible amount of memorable set pieces and characters in a mere hour and a half runtime, each with their own distinct personalities, jobs, and assorted quirks. It’s a fact that made my accidental avoidance of the movie seem even more ridiculous in hindsight.
I guess, in part, that’s my ultimate takeaway from experiencing The Nightmare Before Christmas for the first time in 2023. It’s not just a movie carried by its merchandise; it really is that great of a film. Its combined creative and technical achievements culminate in a unique and unforgettable sense of charm that endures even 30 years after its initial release. If there’s any wisdom I can impart from my experience, it’s this: Never be afraid to reconsider art that you might otherwise have disregarded or overlooked in the past. It’s never too late to be surprised by just how good (or even bad) something can be, and any such experience is a worthwhile one.
I still wish Sora, Donald, and Goofy had shown up at some point, though.