The Nightmare Before Christmas: A Closer Look

Updated June 18, 2021
On the set of The Nightmare Before Christmas

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is perhaps one of the most unconventional Christmas movies ever made. After all, its main character, Jack Skellington, is the "Pumpkin King of Halloween Town!" Yet, through the wonder that Jack sees in Christmas, viewers can experience the holiday in a new way.

A Vision Realized

Burton, once an animator with Disney, supposedly drew inspiration for The Nightmare Before Christmas from the Seuss classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as the retail collision of the Halloween and Christmas holidays. No sooner are goblins and jack o' lantern decorations taken down than snowmen, Santa, and reindeer are put up. He sketched out some basic drawings and wrote a poem of more than 30 verses, describing Jack the Pumpkin King as listless and bored with the same old scary and dark life he's always known. Jack wants to liven things up in Halloween Town. So begins Burton's tale of Jack's pursuit of this mystical event known as Christmas.

Here's one verse from the poem:

I'm sick of the scaring, the terror, the fright.
I'm tired of being something that goes bump in the night.
I'm bored with leering my horrible glances,
And my feet hurt from dancing those skeleton dances.
I don't like graveyards, and I need something new.

A Unique Plot to Match a Unique Film

Halloween Town is a world filled with witches, ghosts, skeletons, and ghouls of all shapes and sizes. Each year, Jack the Pumpkin King leads the town residents through their annual spooky celebration but begins to grow bored with the monotony that life in Halloween Town offers. One day, he stumbles through a portal to another town, Christmas Town. Jack is enthralled by what he sees. He returns home and tells his fellow Halloween Town people about his ideas and views on Christmas.

Unfortunately, Jack has missed much of what Christmas really is and what it means. He decides to kidnap Santa Claus and take over his role, imposing what he knows about Halloween onto what he thinks Christmas is. Jack sends three little henchmen to snatch Santa and bring him to Jack, but the little devils instead hand Santa over to the villain in the plot, Oogie Boogie.

When Christmas Eve rolls around, Jack is ready to take his coffin-like sleigh into the sky, but his love interest, Sally the Ragdoll, attempts to stop and reason with him. She is unsuccessful, and Jack and his trusty pup Zero set off into the fog to distribute gifts to the world's children. Jack's misperceptions about Christmas become illuminated here when he passes out scary items instead of toys. With everyone terrified and believing they are under siege, Jack's sleigh is shot out of the sky.

While everyone assumes this Santa imposter has died in the crash, Jack is alive and well. He sees the error of his ways and sets out to make things right for the people of Christmas Town. Jack heads to the lair of Oogie Boogie, where Sally is being held captive, along with Santa. A battle ensues, and Jack emerges victorious. Santa gives Jack a stern reprimand before heading out to deliver the true gifts on Christmas Eve but leaves Halloween Town with one gift: snow.

The movie concludes with Jack and Sally in a graveyard, professing their feelings for one another and getting a happily ever after.

Tim Burtons A Nightmare Before Christmas Movie Stills

Bringing Halloween Town to Life

While Burton was still at Disney, he pitched the idea for an animated feature to them, but the company thought it was too dark and different from their usual fare. Burton held on to the idea until the time was right. The Disney animation division didn't produce the film, but the parent company is in charge of distribution and memorabilia.

Unlike many of his other projects, Burton did not direct this film. Burton worked with longtime collaborators Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell, who adapted Burton's drawings, poem, and general story for the screenplay. Henry Selick directed the animation team, and he and Burton worked closely together on the design of the sets and puppets for the film. Development took nearly three years and was a painstaking process for all involved.

Not a big hit when initially released on Oct. 29, 1993, it has become a cult favorite because of its masterful animation, music, and touching if somewhat macabre story. It was also nominated for several industry awards. Another holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life, has enjoyed that same trajectory. Totally disregarded when it first hit the big screen; few can imagine a holiday season now without George Bailey.

A Collection of Unforgettable Actors

The Nightmare Before Christmas has a small handful of main characters and a bevy of supporting characters that make up the unforgettable folks of Halloween Town.

Jack the Pumpkin King

In Halloween Town, Jack reigns supreme. He has a persuasive and vivacious personality that easily leads town folk to follow him in his latest scheme. Only level-headed Sally sees the fault in his ill-laid Christmas takeover plans. Jack has ample redeeming qualities to balance out his self-centered, tunnel vision perspectives. While selfish in his views, he can see the error of his ways and set forth to make things right for all he has hurt in his plot to overthrow Santa and make Christmas his.

Sally, the Ragdoll

A creation of the great Frankenstein, Sally the Ragdoll, loves Jack, even before he realizes that he loves her back. Sally is sweet, caring, thoughtful, and comes off as rather shy. She does exhibit brave qualities by escaping her captor and creator and tries to take on the movie's primary villain. Sally is smart, true to her convictions, and it is clear to all (sans Jack) that she is the Yin to Jack's Yang.

Oogie Boogie

Every movie needs a quality villain, and for this film, Oogie Boogie is that character. A bad dude he is, but he manages to be quirky, jovial, and even playful while still holding the main villain status.

Honorable Mentions

The film only includes a few primary players, but each supporting character has a well-developed persona that helps to bring Halloween Town to life. Some of the notable supporting characters include:

  • Dr. Finkelstein - The mad scientist who created Sally
  • The Major of Halloween Town
  • Lock, Shock, and Barrel - three secondary villains
On the set of The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Cast of Voices in The Nightmare Before Christmas

Award-winning composer Danny Elfman not only wrote all the songs for the movie; he also performed many of them. He is also the singing voice for Jack and plays a couple of auxiliary characters.

Other well-known voices include:

  • Chris Sarandon, famously known as Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, voices Jack Skellington.
  • Catherine O'Hara, star of "SCTV," Home Alone, Schitt's Creek, and Best in Show, plays Sally, Jack's closest friend, as well as Shock.
  • Ken Page, a Broadway veteran, voices Oogie Boogie, Jack's nemesis.
  • Greg Proops of Whose Line is It Anyway is the character Harlequin.
  • Paul Reubens, otherwise known as Pee-Wee Herman, is the voice of Lock.
  • Famous acting teacher William Hickey portrayed Dr. Finklestein.

Famous Lines From the Film

The Nightmare Before Christmas has given fans a twisty tale on a classic Christmas theme, incredible and ingenious animation, and countless lines that live in Disney infamy. Here are some of the best lines that the film is well known for:

  • "There's children throwing snowballs, instead of throwing heads. They're busy building toys and absolutely no one's dead." - Jack Skellington drawing parallels between Halloween Town and Christmas Town
  • "And sit together, now and forever. For it is plain, as anyone can see. We're simply meant to be." - Jack Skellington and Sally reflecting on their love
  • "Just because I cannot see it doesn't mean I can't believe it! - Jack Skellington
  • "Oh, there's an empty place in my bones that calls out for something unknown." - Jack Skellington
  • "I really tasted something swell, that's right. And, for a moment, why, I even touched the sky, and at least I left some stories they can tell." - Jack Skellington

The movie is packed with notable lines and quotes from the main characters, primarily Jack Skellington. Many of the well-recognized quotes rhyme and follow poetic patterns that are common to musicals.

Creator Tim Burton

Burton creates films that make the unusual seem normal, the out-of-place part of the in-crowd. Once a lead animator for Disney's cartoon The Fox and the Hound, Burton realized that his vision did not exactly fall into the typical Disney aesthetic and set out to tell stories his own way.

As a writer and director, he has a long line of successful films, including two in the Batman franchise, Pee Wee's Big Adventure, the ghostly romp Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Planet of the Apes, the tender yet still uncompromising Big Fish, a remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the animated Corpse Bride. The animation style of The Nightmare Before Christmas is also used in Corpse Bride, featuring the lead voices of Johnny Depp, a frequent star in many of Burton's films, and Helena Bonham Carter, Burton's wife.

Burton followers will recognize many references to his other films in The Nightmare Before Christmas, including theme music and cars from Batman, the cat from his first film Vincent and even a Mickey Mouse head forming out of a train's smokestack.

Tim Burton

A Disney Movie Perhaps NOT for All Ages

When people think of Disney films, they think they are safe bets to show the entire family, young and old. The Nightmare Before Christmas is not Bambi. Parents should be aware that while the movie is suitable for youths in some ways, it is less suitable in others.

  • The film is a chaste one and includes a single kiss by the main characters at the end, so parents need not worry about sexually explicit scenes or innuendos here. Regarding this aspect, the film is family-friendly.
  • If you have kids under the age of six or seven and perhaps even older, the spooky images might stay with them longer than the duration of the film. You know your kids best, so if they frighten easily, press pause on this film for a few more years.
  • Warning: This movie is a musical. Some kids and adults love musicals and get sucked in by the sing-songy theatrics they oftentimes include. Other people can not stand them and feel the continuous music draws away from the plot and becomes added background noise that they could do without. Consider whether your children can handle a lengthy musical before pressing play.

A Cult Classic Film Everyone Should See at Least Once

If your kids are young or scare easily, skip this flick for a few more years, but at some point in your life and your kids' lives, dust it off and watch it together. It's different, darker, and defiantly quirky, but there are some very relatable and classic themes interwoven throughout the movie. It might not be everyone's cup of tea, but all should give it a view at least once.

The Nightmare Before Christmas: A Closer Look