Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, the little burg where every day gets treated like—you guessed it—Halloween. Even so, Oct. 31 remains the day townspeople live for, the day an entire year’s worth of preparation comes to fruition. Accordingly, this stop-motion animated film opens with a singing and dancing Halloween exhibition, complete with jack-o’-lanterns, vampires, witches, bats, cauldrons, monsters, devils, ghosts and skeletons. Jack, who lives and breathes Halloween, is the star of the show. And after it’s done, he congratulates his friends and neighbors on creating another spooky spectacular. Come morning, they’re ready to start making plans for next year’s celebration.
But something is wrong. Halloween just doesn’t sparkle like it used to for Jack. It feels old, tired and boring. So he goes for a hike to stimulate his senses. While he’s out and about, he stumbles upon something new: a portal to … Christmas Town. Visiting the land of yuletide glee, Jack is enthralled. And he longs to take the charm of Christmas back to Halloween Town. But how can he communicate the warm joys of Christmas to his neighbors, whose highest goal is to create a good scare? So Jack decides to “do” Christmas himself. He’ll give Santa a year off and take charge of all the trappings. Once his fellow Halloween Town inhabitants collaborate with him on making and delivering gifts to all the children of the world, they’re sure to catch the Christmas spirit, right?
Not so fast. Not only does Jack get everything good-heartedly wrong about Christmas, but the Boogie Man (aka Oogie Boogie) shows up to try to ruin the holiday forever. Jack’ll need the help of his friend Sally, a fellow Halloween Townian (and a cartoon-girl version of Frankenstein’s monster) to keep that from happening.
Jack is well-meaning in his quest to bring Christmas to Halloween Town. He loves the holiday’s warmth, joy and gift-giving, and he desires to share those good things with his neighbors. Hence, he involves the whole town in his plan, handing out a special job to each townsperson.
He also gives Sally credit for her wise advice, cementing their friendship and moving it forward toward love. He is heroic as he faces off with Oogie Boogie over the future of Christmas. And he’s humble enough to know when to let the real expert—the man he calls “Sandy Claws”—take the reins. The moral of the story, spoken by Jack, is that even if one fails at a great quest, the effort is still worth it.
Witches, vampires, ghosts and other residents of Halloween Town have real-world occult associations that will rightly bother Christian families. Likewise, Christmas, Halloween and other holidays that have obvious spiritual connections in our world have no such associations in Jack’s. When Jack does a string of “scientific” experiments to try to ascertain the true meaning of Christmas (“In these little bric-a-brac a secret’s waiting to be cracked,” he sings), it’s more than a little jarring that the conclusions he makes have absolutely nothing to do with the Christ of Christmas.
The Nightmare Before Christmas asks, “Where do holidays come from?” and answers quite simply, “From the towns that bear their names.” Thus, Christmas is an organic event conceived by the folks of Christmas Town, not a celebration of the Savior’s birth in a Bethlehem manger. Easter comes from Easter Town and is embodied by a giant pink bunny. Thanksgiving and St. Patrick’s Day alike come from their respective hamlets, in totally secularized packaging.
Frankenstein knock-off Dr. Finkelstein gets bored with Sally, whom he created, and makes for himself a female counterpart to run off with. Oogie Boogie caresses Sally’s leg before recognizing that it’s detached from her body. (She uses it as a ruse to distract him.)
Cartoon violence is motivated by one of two things: First, the citizens of Halloween Town live to give each other a good fright, for that is the “joy” of Halloween. Second, once the story gets rolling, Oogie Boogie and his buddies, Lock, Shock and Barrel, dream up some meanspirited mischief for the purpose of doing away with Sandy Claws.
Song lyrics refer to kidnapping Sandy and doing all manner of nasty things to him, such as boiling him in a pot, chopping him into bits, blowing him up with a cannon and locking him in a box. He is indeed kidnapped, stuffed in a sack and manhandled by Oogie Boogie, who ultimately attempts to boil both Sandy and Sally in something akin to molten lava.
Other displayed “pranks” range from jack-o’-lantern heads being impaled on a fence to Sally repeatedly trying to kill her creator, Dr. Finkelstein, with deadly nightshade. (She doesn’t succeed.)
Stitched haphazardly together by Dr. Finkelstein, Sally is constantly losing an arm or a leg and sewing her own limbs back on. She’s badly in need of such repair after she jumps from a tall tower (within which she’s been imprisoned by Dr. Finkelstein). Jack likewise removes his head and then sets it back in place. A shrunken head is given to a child for Christmas. It terrifies both him and his parents. A tune refers to children playing catch with decapitated heads.
While he’s standing in for Jolly St. Nick, Jack is identified by humans as an imposter and shot down with military missiles. After falling a half-mile out of the sky, he finds himself to be singed but not seriously injured.
Vampires “draining blood” are mentioned. Finkelstein chops his own brain in half and places part of it in his new creation. Jack dodges knives, explosions, gunshots and saw blades as he tries to rescue Sandy Claws.
Jack sings “by god” twice and “heck” once.
Oogie Boogie’s torture chamber is a ghoulish casino. Oogie rolls the dice to determine how (or how much) to torture his victims. Gross-out moments include one character’s insides—which are made up of live bugs—coming out.
If Halloween were a place, what would it be like? The first 10 minutes of this Nightmare convinced me that nobody could have come up with a more creative—if macabre—answer to the question than did writer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick. Dismal days and dark nights. Creepy creatures galore. Clever lyrics entombed in moody, minor-key notes. All thoroughly engaging—and generally restrained, as far as overtly objectionable content goes. There’s cartoon violence and mild gross-out moments, but even the worst of these scenes are bloodless and without gore. And not only is the language nearly always clean, at times the dialogue and lyrics are quite smart.
But we found ourselves squirming a bit as we tried to cram macabre and lighthearted entertainment into the same mental box. Even though this Nightmare‘s good-natured singing-and-dancing vampires, witches and skeletons don’t do much that’s particularly (or specifically) wicked, they are still vampires, witches and skeletons. We’re “filling your dreams to the brim with fright,” Jack sings. And the overall effect of this Halloween-crashes-Christmas monster mash-up is indeed a bit unsettling—in part because of that whole crashing-into-Christmas thing.
So the real issue is this: Have Burton and Selick created a trick or a treat—or, as they’d say in Christmas Town, candy or coal?
There are two ways to look at their creation: from a secular viewpoint and from a Christian one. First, the former. If you think of the holidays in The Nightmare Before Christmas as completely secularized, you can concentrate on the positive messages that arise. Namely, that Jack has no ill motive in mind when he takes over Christmas. He truly does want to “help” spread good will, joy and peace. Then, when he bumbles it, he rushes to set things right again by rescuing Sandy Claws and begging him to save the day.
Now, for the latter. The movie begins with the narrator intoning, “You probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, then I’d say it’s time you’d begun.” Taking that admonition seriously, Jack searches high and low for the true meaning of the blessed event Christmas. And the best he can come up with is that a portly, bearded fellow who flies around with reindeer and on a single night delivers gifts to all the world’s deserving boys and girls. The bric-a-brac he studies so intently doesn’t point him to the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ. It points him to candy, cards, holly and mistletoe.
Those things make him feel happy. But they don’t do him any real good. And they don’t do viewers much good, either—at home watching the DVD or at the multiplex taking in the 3-D “experience.”