I like to see Jack Skellington as a passionate spiritual seeker, which is probably part of why I’ve always related to him as a character. When I first saw the film and fell in love with it, I was still searching for something to believe in myself.

The Nightmare Before Christmas

(1993) Film Review

This page was created on January 12, 2005
This page was last updated on January 12, 2005


This page is part of
Ken Priebe's Blog
It All Started With a Mouse
Snow White
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Nightmare Before Christmas


Directed by Henry Selick
Story and characters by Tim Burton
Adaptation by Michael McDowell
Screenplay by Caroline Thompson

Cast (in credits order)
Danny Elfman .... Jack Skellington (singing), Barrel, Clown with the Tearaway Face (voice)
Chris Sarandon .... Jack Skellington (voice)
Catherine O'Hara .... Sally, Shock (voice)
William Hickey .... Evil Scientist (voice)
Glenn Shadix .... Mayor (voice)
Paul Reubens .... Lock (voice)
Ken Page .... Oogie Boogie (voice)
Ed Ivory .... Santa (voice)
Susan McBride .... Big Witch (voice)
Debi Durst .... Corpse Kid, Corpse Mom, Small Witch (voice)
Greg Proops .... Harlequin Demon, Devil, Sax Player (voice) (as Gregory Proops)
Kerry Katz .... Man Under the Stairs, Vampire, Corpse Father (voice)
Randy Crenshaw .... Mr. Hyde, Behemoth, Vampire (voice)
Sherwood Ball .... Mummy, Vampire (voice)
Carmen Twillie .... Undersea Gal, Man Under the Stairs (voice)
Glenn Walters .... Wolfman (voice)

Produced by
Tim Burton .... producer
Denise Di Novi .... producer (as Denise DiNovi)
Danny Elfman .... associate producer
Kathleen Gavin .... co-producer
Jill Jacobs .... associate producer
Diane Minter Lewis .... associate producer (as Diane Minter)
Philip Lofaro .... associate producer
Jeffrey Katzenberg .... co-producer (uncredited)

Original Music by Danny Elfman
Cinematography by Pete Kozachik
Film Editing by Stan Webb

Rated PG
For rating reasons, go to FILMRATINGS.COM, and MPAA.ORG.
Parents, please refer to PARENTALGUIDE.ORG

The Nightmare Before Christmas:
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Tim Burton's stop-motion animated feature finds Pumpkin King Jack Skellington thinking the grass is greener over in Santa Claus's holiday. He marshals all his goblins and ghouls to take over Christmas, but alas--poor Jack belongs to Halloween. An amazing visual and musical feast that should be seen at least twice to catch all the kinks and quirks in the nooks and crannies. Academy Award Nominations: Best Visual Effects.
Click to go to Ken's BlogReview By Ken Priebe
Web Site: www.prie-believing.com
Ken earned his BFA from University of Michigan School of Art and Design, where he majored in film and animation. He has a Classical Animation Certificate from VanArts, where he currently works as a manager and instructor. Ken lives near Vancouver, British Columbia with his wife Janet, who is also an artist. They are working on an animated short film, and are involved with graphic arts, drama and Bible studies at their church.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a masterpiece that was 10 years in the making. The film was not produced by Walt Disney Feature Animation, but only distributed by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures. The film was originally conceived as a poem by Tim Burton when he was working as an animator at Disney in the early 1980s. Since he created the concept while working there, Disney has always owned the rights to it, but it wasn’t until 10 years later that they made it into a film. Tim Burton left Disney in 1984 after directing two short films at the studio, moving on to direct his first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985, followed by Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), and Edward Scissorhands (1990). His success as a director led him to team up with his former Disney colleague Henry Selick, who had also made a name for himself as a stop-motion director in San Francisco. The reunion led to the 3-year production and final release in 1993 of The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was created in the technique of stop-motion animation. What differs in this technique is that rather than achieving the illusion of life through a series of sequential drawings, puppets are manipulated frame-by-frame on real miniature sets. The puppets are built of a foam latex material covering intricate metal armatures that hold the positions they are posed into for each 24th of a second. The result is a fluid, surreal and beautiful visual experience that uses real lights and materials to create a very realistic yet fantastic world on screen. Nightmare is one of my favorite films, and one of the films that made me want to be an animator.

This film has become a cult classic not only among fans of Tim Burton, animation or gothic cartoons, but also takes its place among the many holiday specials that inspired it, such as Rankin-Bass’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964). Now, from a spiritual perspective, specifically a Christian one, there is much that could be said of Nightmare and these other specials, in that they focus mainly on the legends and symbols that are associated with Christmas but have very little to do directly with Christ himself. The Santa Claus legend has its roots in an actual historical figure deemed as Saint Nicholas, who anonymously gave out cookies and gold coins to poor children in present-day Turkey in the early 4th century. His deeds were celebrated every year on December 6, the anniversary of his death, and over many centuries, different countries and merging of traditions embellished the truth into the legends we have today. Modern stories, told mostly now through film and television, focus mainly on the myth of the magical man from the North Pole who flies around the world with his sleigh and reindeer to give out gifts to good little children. The commercialization of the legend by secular society has caused some concerns and confusion in how it relates to the real reason behind Christmas, which is the birth of Jesus Christ. Few people know the real history behind either St. Nicholas or Jesus, yet they celebrate Christmas nonetheless. The Santa myth is an easier myth to continue to spin tales about, such as recent films like Santa Clause and Elf, because even though the real “Santa” was a Christian, the commercialized Santa is not as “religious” or controversial as Jesus is. This shift in focus has resulted in many stories where Christmas must be ‘saved’ because Santa is unable to deliver presents, as if Christmas is doomed without that, and Nightmare is no exception to this. The exclusion of Jesus in such popular stories remains problematic for many Christian parents who want to instill their children with belief in the real historical figure who will be Lord of their lives, as opposed to believing in a historical-become-fanciful figure who they must someday be told is “not real.” It’s a very psychologically confusing paradox to grow up with, one which I have only recently been able to reconcile.

The universe created in Nightmare and many other holiday specials is, on the surface, a largely secular one that deals with the symbols our culture associates with the holidays we celebrate. The origins behind these symbols: wreaths, candy canes, stockings and like, are not mentioned nor are they alluded to. On top of this, in the case of Nightmare, symbols from Halloween are also thrown into the mix, in such a context that Halloween is literally taking over Christmas! The cultural assumption our pseudo-Christian society makes, that Halloween is Satan’s holiday and Christmas is Jesus’ holiday, makes for some interesting theological analysis here indeed! What’s going on here? The secularization of Christmas has gone so far that the Devil has taken it captive? Is this film a warning of what will happen if Christ continues to be left out of his own birthday celebration? Looked at from this angle, all kinds of social concerns could be drawn and mulled over, and I can certainly sympathize with it. I don’t believe there is anything inherently wrong with our observances of either holiday, but when a culture celebrates in total ignorance of their origins, or takes them in a completely different direction, I believe several mistakes can be made, and several wonderful realizations can be missed out on. This is one way to look at a film like The Nightmare Before Christmas, as a commentary on how our culture robs symbols of their meaning and mixes them together until they serve a different purpose all together. While I appreciate the deep concerns raised by this cultural phenomena, I think there are many other things beneath the surface, and as Madeline L’Engle reminds us, “There is nothing so secular it cannot be sacred.” God stills speaks to us no matter how much we try to ignore him, and what better way for him to speak than through an art form such as stop-motion animation, a very God-like creative process in itself? The film’s primary purpose is to entertain us through music, art, and ultimately storytelling, and even though God and Jesus are not mentioned in the story, I believe they sneak in and speak to us nonetheless. There is a significant lesson taught to us which Tim Burton very likely did not realize could be a Biblical one. The holiday symbols and worlds created by them provide the stage where this story is presented.

The story of Nightmare focuses on Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, who grows disillusioned of his position and discovers Christmas Town, which inspires him so much he decides to take over the role of Santa Claus. His attempt to take over the holiday fails, and he ends up back where he started, but now with a renewed vigor and enthusiasm for who he really is. I like to see Jack as a passionate spiritual seeker, which is probably part of why I’ve always related to him as a character. When I first saw the film and fell in love with it, I was still searching for something to believe in myself. Jack walks through the forest outside Halloween Town, having just been admired and worshipped by the whole town for his leadership and outrageous talent. People who have grown up as artists are quite familiar with this treatment, and it’s likely that Tim Burton drew this from his own experience. If people who are blessed with an ability to draw, for example, had a dollar for every time they heard the phrase “Wow, you’re so good! I can only draw stick figures”, there would be no such thing as a “starving artist.” It’s a lonely existence, until you discover other people like yourself. Until that happens, and you are humbled by the experience of art as teamwork, as a young artist you are treated like a celebrity, much like Jack. After awhile, you find yourself walking through the forest, as it were, hanging your head in search for something new, something to shake you up and challenge you. This feeling needn’t be reserved for artists, but for anyone searching for meaning, for a feeling that makes you more alive.

Jack walks far enough to find himself someplace he’s never been before, and encounters a circle of trees that are doorways into the various holidays. He is mesmerized by the one leading to Christmas Town, and upon stumbling through it he discovers the town itself, and his life is changed. Jack’s reaction and joy is one of jubilant curiosity and delight, as he looks at every object and wonders, ‘What is This?’ The musical number that begins Jack’s journey can make us reflect on the wonder and delight felt by people who encounter Jesus and the truth of the Gospel for the first time. For many, particularly those who come from a dark past or a disappointing search for truth and love, this is an extremely amazing moment, and another one that I can certainly relate to. Upon returning to Halloween Town, he gives a ‘sermon’ from a pulpit telling ‘the good news’ to the rest of the town.

Often, after the thrill of coming to faith in Jesus, there follows a period of intense questioning as your emotions try to line up with your intellect. You have experienced something bigger than yourself that is completely new to you, and you never see the world the same way again. Familiar things become almost insignificant and you struggle to understand rationally this supernatural thing that has occurred. It’s ironic that belief usually comes before understanding, and the gap between the two is faith. Jack goes through this process in several scenes that show him agonizing over the meaning of Christmas through scientific experiments. He dissects teddy bears, analyzes holly berries, memorizes Christmas carols and tries to decipher the mystery through mathematical formulas, all the while singing, “What does it mean? What does it mean?” What’s interesting to note here, is through all of Jack’s efforts to find the true meaning of Christmas, he never really gets it. His scientific analysis of the symbols associated with the holiday do nothing to uncover the reality of the baby in the manger who started it all. Would somebody completely foreign to our symbols and traditions be able to find Jesus in what our Christmas appears to be on the surface? If only Jack could have discovered the meaning behind the Christmas wreath, or found a nativity set to ponder over… Anyway, his misguided conclusion behind all of his searching is that he is being called to “improve” Christmas by taking it over, and getting the whole town involved.

The scenes that result are disturbing and funny at the same time, as Jack has Santa Claus captured, creates a myriad of demonic toys, and distributes them around the world in a flying coffin-turned-sleigh. The result is disastrous, and not only is Christmas ruined for all of the children, but he ends up being blown out of the sky by the military and lamenting in a cemetery, wondering, ‘What have I done?’ Through his trials, he gains a new appreciation for his old life, through failing at being something he is not. He re-discovers who he truly is, and uses his experience to revitalize his job as the Pumpkin King, and goes about to set things right with Santa Claus and his holiday.

God loves us and has a life plan for each one of us. Until we come to know God personally through Jesus, we might unknowingly be working through that plan, or we might have a different plan of our own. In 1 Corinthians 7, which is mostly in the context of marriage, in verse 20 the writer Paul encourages us to remain in the situation to which God has called us, provided it isn’t immoral. Often when we first come to know Jesus, we think it means we should go to seminary or become a missionary, some kind of ‘spiritual’ profession. God does indeed call certain people to change their lives in this way, but for many of us, He wishes us to remain where we are and apply our newfound faith to our present situation, to “bloom where we are planted.” We are all called to be witnesses, no matter what kind of occupation we have. We may already be where God wants us to be in order to serve Him. If we jump to conclusions and pursue a different plan than what God has called us to, we may no longer be serving God, but ourselves.

Jack makes this mistake by thinking that his calling lies somewhere else, rather than where he already is. Though his intentions are good, he misses the point and nearly ruins himself and the holiday he has come to love. Yet through his failure, he comes to this realization and sees who he is from a different perspective. Sometimes we also have to fail to discover who we are, and if that is the case, God uses our failure to bring us to Him, and the life He has called us to.

Blog with Ken about this film

Copyright 2004 Ken Priebe


This page is part of
Ken Priebe's Blog
It All Started With a Mouse
Snow White
Home on the Range
Nightmare Before Christmas
Private Spiritual Concerns

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