Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Tim Burton Edition. The Nightmare Before Christmas

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: The Nightmare Before Christmas

Year: 1993

Budget: $18 million

Box office: $76.2 million

Plot: Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” and leader of Halloween Town leads them in organizing the annual Halloween celebrations. However, Jack has grown weary of the same routine year after year and wants something new.

Wandering in the woods the morning after Halloween, he stumbles across seven trees containing doors leading to towns representing various holidays, and opens a portal to Christmas Town.


Awed by the unfamiliar holiday, Jack returns to Halloween Town to show the residents his findings, but they fail to grasp the idea of Christmas and compare everything to their ideas of Halloween. Jack decides that it’s unfair for Christmas Town alone to enjoy the holiday and announces that he and the citizens of Halloween Town will take over Christmas this year.


Jack assigns the citizens of Halloween Town Christmas-themed jobs, including singing carols, making presents, and building a sleigh to be pulled by skeletal reindeer. Sally experiences a vision that their efforts will end in disaster, but Jack dismisses this and assigns her the task of sewing him a red coat to wear.

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He also tasks Lock, Shock and Barrel to abduct Santa Claus and bring him back to Halloween Town. Jack orders the trio to keep Santa safe, but the children instead deliver Santa to Oogie Boogie who plots to play a game with Santa’s life at stake. Sally attempts to rescue Santa so he can stop Jack, but Oogie captures her as well.


Jack departs to deliver presents to the world, but the Halloween-styled gifts terrify and attack the populace. The military shoots down Jack, causing him to crash in a cemetery. Jack bemoans the disaster he has made of Christmas, he finds he enjoyed the experience nonetheless, reigniting his love of Halloween.


Jack returns to Halloween Town and finds Oogie’s lair. Oogie tries to kill Jack, but Jack pulls apart the thread holding his cloth form together, revealing a massive pile of bugs that fall into Oogie’s cauldron and are killed. Jack apologizes to Santa for his actions, and Santa assures Jack that he can fix things and returns to Christmas Town.


As Santa replaces the Halloween-style presents with genuine ones, the townspeople of Halloween Town celebrate Jack’s survival and return. Santa then visits Halloween Town and brings them a snowfall for the residents to play with, which in a way, fulfills Jack’s original dream. In the graveyard, Jack and Sally declare their love for each other.


Background: The Nightmare Before Christmas originated in a poem written by Tim Burton in 1982 while he was working as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Over the years, Burton’s thoughts regularly returned to the project, and in 1990, he made a development deal with Walt Disney Studios. Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the film as an opportunity to continue the studio’s streak of recent successes in feature animation. Danny Elfman and Burton created a rough storyline and two-thirds of the film’s songs.Elfman found writing Nightmare’s eleven songs as “one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had. I had a lot in common with Jack Skellington.”

As a director, Tim Burton’s films include Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Corpse Bride, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Batman, Batman Returns, Planet of the Apes, Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland, and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.


Animation: Director Henry Selick and his team of animators began production in July 1991 in San Francisco, California with a crew of over 120 workers, utilizing 20 sound stages for filming. At the peak of production, 20 individual stages were simultaneously being used for filming.In total, there were 109,440 frames taken for the film. The work of Ray Harryhausen, Ladislas Starevich, Edward Gorey, Étienne Delessert, Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, Jan Lenica, Francis Bacon, and Wassily Kandinsky influenced the filmmakers. Selick described the production design as akin to a pop-up book.


The filmmakers constructed 227 puppets to represent the characters in the movie, with Jack Skellington having “around four hundred heads”, allowing the expression of every possible emotion. Sally had ten types of faces, each made with a series of eleven expressions (e.g. eyes open and closed, and various facial poses) and synchronized mouth movements.” 1

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Music Danny Elfman first became well known as the singer-songwriter for Oingo Boingo in the early 1980s. In addition to Burton’s films, he has written scorves for Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, Good Will Hunting, Milk, Men in Black and Fifty Shades of Grey . He also wrote the theme for The Simpsons.



  • “This Is Halloween”
  • “Jack’s Lament”
  • “What’s This?”
  • “Town Meeting Song”
  • “Jack’s Obsession”
  • “Kidnap the Sandy Claws”
  • “Making Christmas”
  • “Oogie Boogie’s Song”
  • “Sally’s Song”
  • “Poor Jack”
  • “Finale/Reprise”

Voice Cast: We profiled Catherine O’Hara, the voice of Sally and Shock, when we did Chicken Little. Paul Reubens returns as Lock.

Chris Sarandon as Jack Skellington. . He is known best for playing Prince Humperdinck in The Princess Bride, the vampire Jerry Dandrige in Fright Night, and Detective Mike Norris in Child’s Play, He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Leon Shermer in Dog Day Afternoon. 2 William Hickey as Doctor Finklestein. He has numerous credits, but he is best known for his Academy Award-nominated role as Don Corrado Prizzi in the John Huston film Prizzi’s Honor as well as Uncle Lewis in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Glenn Shadix as Mayor of Halloween Town. He is best know as Otho in Beetlejuice. Other film roles include Sunset, Heathers, Demolition Man, Love Affair, Dunston Checks In, Multiplicity and Planet of the Apes. Ken Page as Oogie Boogie. His film credits include All Dogs Go to Heaven, Torch Song Trilogy and Dreamgirls. His TV credits include guest roles on shows such as Charmed and Touched by an Angel. He created the eponymous role of “Ken” in the original Broadway production of Ain’t Misbehavin’, and played the role of “Old Deuteronomy” in both the original Broadway productions of Cats.

The cast also features Kerry Katz, Carmen Twillie, Randy Crenshaw, Debi Durst, Glenn Walters, Sherwood Ball, John Morris and Greg Proops voicing various characters.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert gave a highly positive review for Nightmare. Ebert believed the film’s visual effects were as revolutionary as Star Wars, taking into account that Nightmare was “filled with imagination that carries us into a new world”.
  • Peter Travers of Rolling Stone called it a restoration of “originality and daring to the Halloween genre. This dazzling mix of fun and fright also explodes the notion that animation is kid stuff. … It’s 74 minutes of timeless movie magic.”
  • James Berardinelli stated “The Nightmare Before Christmas has something to offer just about everyone. For the kids, it’s a fantasy celebrating two holidays. For the adults, it’s an opportunity to experience some light entertainment while marveling at how adept Hollywood has become at these techniques. There are songs, laughs, and a little romance. In short, The Nightmare Before Christmas does what it intends to: entertain.”
  • Desson Thomson of The Washington Post enjoyed stylistic features in common with Oscar Wilde, German Expressionism, the Brothers Grimm and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Michael A. Morrison discusses the influence of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! on the film, writing that Jack parallels the Grinch and Zero parallels Max, the Grinch’s dog.
  • Philip Nel writes that the film “challenges the wisdom of adults through its trickster characters”, contrasting Jack as a “good trickster” with Oogie Boogie, whom he also compares with Dr. Seuss’ Dr. Terwilliker as a bad trickster.

The film was nominated for both the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation. Nightmare won the Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film, while Elfman won Best Music. Selick and the animators were also nominated for their work. Elfman was nominated for the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score.

Legacy: Since 2001, Disneyland has given its Haunted Mansion Holiday attraction a Nightmare Before Christmas theme for the holiday season. It features characters, decorations and music from the film. In addition to Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Halloween Party featuring the film’s characters.

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In 2001, Disney began to consider producing a sequel, but rather than using stop motion, Disney wanted to use computer animation. Burton convinced Disney to drop the idea. “I was always very protective of Nightmare not to do sequels or things of that kind,” Burton explained. “You know, ‘Jack visits Thanksgiving world’ or other kinds of things just because I felt the movie had a purity to it and the people that like it… Because it’s a mass-market kind of thing, it was important to kind of keep that purity of it.”

My take: So the question is: is this a Halloween movie, or a Christmas movie? Well as we like to say around here… it can be two things.

I feel that this medium is the best expression of Burtkn’s esthetic

Next Week: We return to our regularly scheduled program with Tom Hanks in Splash