Format: DVD from personal collection on The New Portable.
Years ago I guested on The Lair of the Unwanted podcast. Okay, I guest on that podcast relatively frequently, but the time I’m thinking of was around Halloween. The topic was our top-5 movies to watch on Halloween, and it’s an episode that I think has sadly been lost. One of my picks was The Nightmare Before Christmas as a movie that works beautifully for little kids—put it in at the start of a party before the kids go to bed kind of thing. One of the hosts, the illustrious Jason Soto, said it’s a movie he hadn’t watched specifically because he’s not a teenage girl who shops at Hot Topic. That got a lot yells and anger from all of the rest of us on the podcast. To my knowledge, Jason still hasn’t watched it, and he really should. I’m calling him out here. Jason, you need to watch this.
Yes, I’m tipping my hand on this. I love this movie, and I can’t really imagine that someone wouldn’t. It’s a lovely little fantasy, something that creates a beautiful little mythology that is both wonderful for children and just scary enough for them to fit in with the spirit of the season. It’s also stop-motion animated, and it’s done beautifully. The characters are iconic and gorgeous. It’s also a musical, and the songs are great.
In the film’s mythology, major holidays have a town associated with them. There’s a Christmas town, an Easter town, and, of course, a Halloween town. Halloween Town is populated by vampires, ghouls, werewolves and other monsters. While there is a mayor, the real leader of the town is Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, except when he’s singing and is Danny Elfman). Jack is the Pumpkin King, and all of the scares that happen in the real world, goes the mythology, come from Jack and his team.
After his last Halloween, Jack finds himself strangely depressed and feeling unfulfilled. He still loves Halloween, of course, but wishes there were more. Off wandering with his thoughts, Jack essentially finds seven trees, each with a symbol painted on it representing a different holiday. He goes through one, discovering Christmas Town and is immediately entranced. Jack gathers what knowledge he can and returns home, determined to understand what he has seen. After days of experimentation and thought, Jack presents his findings to the rest of Halloween Town. More, he determines that this year, he will find a way to deter Santa Claus and he and his people will take over and create Christmas.
What follows is a series of misunderstandings, both intentional and unintentional. Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a sort of ragdoll/cloth golem created by the evil scientist (William Hickey), is secretly in love with Jack. She also has premonitions that, like Cassandra, aren’t believed. Jack tasks her with making him a Santa Claus suit, and he refuses to listen to her visions. Jack sends out the three best trick-or-treaters--Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (Catherine O’Hara), and Barrel (Danny Elfman)—to kidnap Santa Claus. The kids, kind of intentionally, don’t really understand that Jack wants Santa Claus treated nicely.
A great portion of the middle of the film concerns the misunderstandings of Jack and the other denizens of Halloween Town for what Christmas is supposed to be like. What they produce is more or less a Halloween-themed Christmas. While this might be a little scary for very young children, all but the most timid should really enjoy this. It’s the fun sort of scary—carnival spook house “scares.”
The Nightmare Before Christmas is almost unique in that there really isn’t a significant bad guy. There sort of is in the person of Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), who is more or less the boogeyman. Oogie Boogie is the genuinely scariest thing in Halloween Town in that he’s not the sort of fun-scary as the other residents. He only becomes a part of the film because Santa Claus ends up in his clutches and he needs to be defeated. But Oogie doesn’t really come into play until late in the second act. Really, Jack’s adventure in trying to understand Christmas is the real plot and the only plot worth caring about.
If there is a problem with this movie—and that’s genuinely a very big “if”—it’s that it’s not long enough. At just 76 minutes, this feels like it’s over before it’s begun. That’s a damn shame because I could easily stand another 10 minutes in the company of these characters. I could handle another song or two. Honestly, I’d take another half hour and not consider the time wasted or the movie’s welcome overstayed.
And so, really, that’s it. The Nightmare Before Christmas is equally at home in October and December. It’s wonderfully entertaining for young children and just as entertaining for older children. It’s beautifully made, entertaining, and the songs are great. If you don’t like this, there’s something genuinely wrong with what you consider entertaining and worth seeing.
Why to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas: This is the perfect Halloween movie for kids.
Why not to watch: I could stand another 10 minutes…or another 30.