Ho ho ho, fellow Pumpkin Kings! It’s time for another Millennial Misremembers, and this time we’re going in for another holiday classic. And no, I’m not using “holiday” as a synonym for Christmas. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a Christmas movie, sure, but it’s also a Halloween movie. 

This Oscar-nominated film was released in the US on October 29, 1993. We usually think of it as a Tim Burton film, but really he came up with the characters and story. Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson wrote the film; Danny Elfman composed the score, and Henry Selick directed it.

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Now that we’ve got the history out of the way, let’s get on to what I “remember.”

Millennial Misremembers: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas -- Sally and Jack kiss in the moonlight

Walt Disney Pictures

What I (mis)remember

I had a DVD of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it had French dubbing as an option. I was obsessed with watching the film en français (“Bienvenue à Halloween” was my jam!). So much so that I brought it to French class, and we watched it as extra credit or something. Lol. I’m a nerd. 

I was also a Disneyland kid, and from Halloween to New Year’s, the Haunted Mansion ride would transform into The Nightmare Before Christmas (you can watch a video of the whole thing here.)

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Essentially, I have a lot of warm fuzzy memories associated with the movie, though I don’t remember much about the actual film besides its general aesthetic. Oh! And it gave Danny Elfman name and sound recognition in my house. 

Now, let’s get on with the show. 🎃

Let’s rewatch!

The film opens with a narrator (Patrick Stewart) telling us that holidays come from inside trees painted with icons of their respective holidays (a turkey for Thanksgiving, an egg for Easter, etc). The Jack O’Lantern on the Halloween tree swings open, and we enter.

We’re immediately treated to “This is Halloween,” and as much as I love this song, this was the point I had to turn on the subtitles. But seriously, this animation is still so cool! I’m not sure if it’s remastered or how much that would affect the quality, but the characters move quite fluidly and with a lot of detail. 

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The residents of Halloween Town are celebrating another successful Halloween. The Mayor (Glenn Shadix) credits the leadership of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, Elfman).

Meanwhile, Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey) catches his creation, Sally (Catherine O’Hara), mooning after Jack. He wants to drag her back to his tower, but she slips away by ripping the seam off her arm. 

Millennial Misremembers: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas -- Jack is fascinated by Christmas lights

Walt Disney Pictures

Jack doesn’t like all the attention being bestowed upon him and slips away the first chance he gets. He launches into his “I Want” song, and it’s so full of existential ennui. He’s too good at his job, you know? He wants more! If you ever wonder how successful people can be depressed, this is a good example. 

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Sally’s been spying on Jack while he sings. And she knows just how she feels — restless and impatient. She then returns to Dr. Finkelstein for her arm and to replace her deadly nightshade stock. She’s got a habit of poisoning the bad doctor.

Also, can I just say that O’Hara is a master of voice acting? Hers is almost unrecognizable here. 

The next day, the mayor calls on Jack. He’s already drawing up plans for next year’s Halloween (“[He’s] only an elected official! [He] can’t make decisions by [him]self!”) But Jack’s not home — he never went back last night. 

No, he’s been wandering through the forest. Walking so far, he comes upon the Holiday Trees. The Christmas tree-emblazoned door catches his eye. So, he goes down the proverbial rabbit hole into Christmas Town. Oh hey. It’s set up kinda like Whoville. 

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Watching the wonder on Jack’s face as he discovers this novelty is bittersweet. I recognize that hope that “Oh hey! Maybe this is the thing that will snap me out of my depression.” Especially when you see how happy everyone involved in that activity is. Unfortunately, the fantastic new interest rarely works as more than a temporary bandaid.  

Millennial Misremembers: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas -- Lock, Shock and Barrel walk through the forest.

Walt Disney Pictures

Back in Halloween Town, the mayor is flipping out. There are only 364 days till Halloween! They’ve got to find Jack! Sally hears the missing persons alarm and decides to poison Dr. Finkelstein so she can help with the search. 

Finally, Jack returns — bearing gifts for his townsfolk. He tries to explain Christmas Town to them show-and-tell style. The thing is, the folx in Halloween Town don’t seem to grasp the idea of Christmas. (Not the whole religion thing, but the “merry” and “joyous” thing.) They think stockings should be filled with rotting feet and toys that bite. 

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When he realizes he can’t get them to understand, he leans into their vision of Christmas to win them over by describing Santa (Edward Ivory) as a terrifying monster named Sandy Claws. 

Looking for a way to get his fellow citizens to comprehend, Jack pays a visit to Dr. Finkelstein, who has just finished locking Sally away. Jack wants to borrow equipment for a series of experiments he wants to conduct. His experiments entail breaking apart different pilfered Christmas items and dissolving them in various solutions. Not very illuminating. 

Millennial Misremembers: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas - Jack as Santa emerges from his coffin sleigh

Walt Disney Pictures

Meanwhile, Sally conducts some experiments of her own and manages to escape from her tower via zipline. She takes some refreshments over to Jack’s, where he’s hard at work at the literal drawing board, trying to mathematically figure out the secret to Christmas. 

Sally goes to play “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.” Her flower turns into a beautiful Christmas tree before sparking aflame and dying. What a prophecy. 

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“Something’s up with Jack,” and the town is worried. Jack is worked up over the fact that he has all the pieces to the puzzle, but he cannot figure out the picture. Is he trying too hard? Is the answer easier than he thinks? Why can’t anyone he have Christmas? So that’s what he’ll do — improve Christmas. 

Sally is the only person in Halloween Town not delighted by this news. The rest of the inhabitants line up to gather their assignments from the mayor. Dr. Finkelstein is tasked with building reindeer for a horrible jolly Christmas. 

Jack has also called upon Lock (Paul Reubens), Shock (O’Hara) and Barrel (Elfman) to give them a top-secret mission that they’re to leave Oogie Boogie (Ken Page) out of. They agree, with their fingers crossed behind their backs. 

Jack has asked them to kidnap Sandy Claws. Their potential plans are pretty violent. Seems like they didn’t understand the assignment. Oogie Boogie overhears their plan.

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Sally tries to convince Jack that his Christmas plan is terrible, but he’s more interested in condescendingly convincing her to sew his Santa suit. 

Just then! The mischievous trio returns … with the Easter Bunny. Jack is furious and very apologetic to the Bunny. He also warns Lock, Shock and Barrel to be nice to their kidnapping victim lol.

The town is busy at work getting ready for their practically atonal Christmas. Jack’s ecstatic, even as he gently tries redirecting his friends’ efforts to slightly more cheerful enterprises. Like, maybe don’t wrap up that roadkill turtle? Their montage is intercut with Christmas Town peeps getting ready for OG Christmas. 

Soon, it’s Christmas Eve. Jack’s coffin sled is ready, and his skeletal reindeer are prancing. Over in Christmas Town, Santa’s preparing his list and checking it twice. Ding dong! His kidnappers arrive. 

In Halloween Town, Sally fits Jack into his costume but laments that he doesn’t look like himself. He thinks that’s wonderful. He feels so much better now. Sally tells him that she knows he’s felt like something’s missing. He cuts her off before she can finish her thought. 

The trio returns with Santa. Jack shakes his captive’s hands; he’s thrilled to meet him but surprised that Sandy Claws has hands. Jack tries to reframe this kidnapping as a holiday for Santa and tells Kris Kringle to enjoy his time off. Sally facepalms. 

Millennial Misremembers: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas -- Oogie Boogie plays roullette with a tied-up Santa

Walt Disney Pictures

The kiddos take Santa away … to Oogie Boogie, who serenades a tied-up Santa on a roulette wheel under a black light.  

Meanwhile, Sally devises a plan to stop Jack. She pours frog juice into the town’s fountains, which creates a vicious fog. Her trickery doesn’t work because Jack’s ghost dog, Zero, has a very shiny nose. 

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Then, Sally has a (quite dull) song lamenting that Jack doesn’t notice how much she likes him. Umm. First, why does Sally get the only boring piece in this movie? Second, if you like someone, tell them. Three, she’s done nothing this whole time but poo-poo his plans without really helping him come up with actionable solutions. 

Next, Jack is out Santa-ing it up and doing a pretty good job, minus the terrifying children and ‘rents alike. I mean, people are calling the cops. The military is getting involved to stop him. Jack mistakes cannon fire for celebratory thanks. 

Sally knows she has to find Santa to save Jack (and Christmas). She quickly susses out that Sandy must be at Oogie Boogie’s house. So, she uses literal pieces of her body to distract Oogie Boogie and try to free Saint Nick. 

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Before she manages, Jack gets shot out of the air while all of Halloween Town watches. In a subtle choice, Jack falls directly into the arms of an angel statue. He launches into a song about how taking over Christmas was a mistake.

But it quickly shifts into something else: Him realizing that even though he failed, he tried something new, and he felt good, like himself. Like the Pumpkin King.

With a newfound sense of purpose, Jack realizes he needs to set things right. Will he make it back before Oogie Boogie kills Santa and Sally? Yes, yes, of course. This is still a holiday movie. 

Jack apologizes to Santa, who tells him he’d better listen to Sally. Then he says ableist words that are not befitting Father Christmas. Jack hopes Santa has time to fix Christmas. 

Millennial Misremembers: Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas -- Jack in the arms of an angel statue

Walt Disney Pictures

Jack realizes that Sally likes him, but before they kiss, the town finds and rescues him, robbing Sally of any moment in the spotlight. 

Meanwhile, Santa travels at supersonic speed to fix the mess that Jack made. And all is right in the world. Apparently. 

In Halloween Town, the citizens celebrate that Jack’s alive. Santa flies over and wishes them a “Happy Halloween,” and Jack responds with a “Merry Christmas.” Then, Santa gifts the town with snow, to the delight of the Halloweeners. 

Well, most of them. Sally goes to the graveyard to play more “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not.” Jack follows her. They have their big kiss. Pan up. End of movie. 

Does it live up to the nostalgia?

I like this movie better now than I did as a kid. It has more nuance and layers than I ever knew. I don’t think I realized how much it was about depression — and I don’t think I’m reading too much into that. The holidays can be an extremely dark time for a lot of people. Blending a “dark” holiday, a “light” one and depression work so well. The Nightmare Before Christmas is exceptionally poignant. 

It’s also really funny? There’s a gag where Jack pulls out one of his rib bones for Zero to play fetch. And another is where Dr. Finkelstein and Jack relish that “curiosity killed the cat.” Even Jack’s use of a chalkboard to figure out why Christmas works is a humorous way to play with his depression. And those are just three examples of many!

And, of course, the score! The fact that the main songs come back over and over again as the instrumental score is just so great. I’m not good at music terms, so I can’t go into more detail, but suffice it to say, it works. 

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Of course, it’s not perfect. The film is 30 years old. I question if, made today, the ostensible villains of the film would be Black- and Jewish-coded. Or if Santa would refer to Halloween Town as an “insane asylum.” Plus, Sally would probably have a bit more agency. And, honestly, did The Nightmare Before Christmas need a love story?

Speaking of villains, I do love that the two villains kinda suck and fall flat as far as villains go — they’re not the true villains. That would be stagnation, boredom, depression. Also, can we get some finger snaps for the fact that the residents of Halloween Town aren’t (all) portrayed as evil? The world needs balance. 

So, if The Nightmare Before Christmas isn’t already on your yearly holiday movie rotation, I suggest you remedy that ASAP. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. 

This article was originally published on 11/28/22.

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