All “Jack”-ed Up: The 30th Anniversary of “The Nightmare Before Christmas”

In an interview with in 2006, director Henry Selick reflected upon the belated success of his film The Nightmare Before Christmas, and that he didn’t anticipate how popular it would become.

“It just sort of had this life beyond its first release, growing from a cult-size audience to a very large cult audience of people dressed up in the costumes, and with tattoos, and with songs inspired by it…So, no, we never could have foreseen this.”

When Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas bowed in theaters thirty years ago, it came and went quickly.

Disney debuted the film with tremendous marketing and fanfare, using The New York Film Festival to premiere it on October 9th, 1993. From here, the film had a limited release on October 13th, 1993, to build word-of-mouth and then it opened everywhere on October 29th, 1993.

Critics praised the movie’s artistry and originality. At the same time, some were less kind (Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly dubbed The Nightmare Before Christmas “Holloween”). Audiences at the time responded similarly, as the film went on to gross only $50 million in the U.S., far behind Disney’s last two animated hits, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin.

By the Christmas shopping season, Nightmare merchandise found itself in toy store bargain bins.

Celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is the definition of a film that wasn’t appreciated in its time. However, it has more than made up for that today.

Several years after Nightmare’s release, the film developed a cult following that snowballed and stretched outside of Disney’s usual base to include Burton aficionados and many in the “Goth community.” Fans began to seek out Nightmare collectibles, and those marked-down toys began to fetch some hefty prices on eBay.

In October of 2006, the film returned to theaters in 3D. In the years after, Nightmare products began reappearing on store shelves, and Jack and Sally started appearing at Disney theme parks during Halloween events. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, the film was re-released to theaters this month.

Today, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is almost its own “sub-genre” of Disney, with fans who fully embrace the film at Halloween, Christmas, and all year round.

Not bad for a project that sat gathering dust for years at Disney. The film’s inception can be traced back to the 1980s when Tim Burton worked as an animator at Disney. While there, he created artwork for a potential holiday television special called The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Feeling as if his creative style was being stifled at Disney, Burton eventually left, becoming one of the most original live-action directors of his generation, with films like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Beetlejuice (1988) and 1989’s behemoth blockbuster Batman.

It was around this time that Burton became interested in reviving The Nightmare Before Christmas and approached Disney about it. With the director’s star shining, Disney was interested in partnering with Burton on this.

However, Burton wanted this to be his vision (darker, moodier) and not like the traditional Disney fairy tales. To help differentiate it, The Nightmare Before Christmas would also be made in stop-motion instead of traditional 2D animation.

The film would center on Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, who has grown tired of scares and shrieks and yearns for something more. While wandering through the woods, he literally stumbles into Christmastown.

Upon seeing this, he sings, “What’s this?!?” and becomes obsessed with Christmas, so much that he decides that he and the other residents of Halloweentown will take over Christmas and deliver their (more gruesome) versions of Christmas gifts. Of course, when these two holidays collide, the results are disastrous.

The Nightmare Before Christmas also featured bizarre but compelling characters, including Sally, the sad, stitched-together rag doll who carries a torch for Jack, the Mayor of Halloweentown, a literal, two-faced politician, Lock, Shock and Barrel, three professional trick-or-treaters, Dr. Finkelstein, the mad scientist who created Sally, Santa Claus (or “Sandy Claws”) himself, and Oogie-Boogie, the film’s villain, a big, creepy, burlap bag full of bugs.

Tim Burton and Henry Selick

Also, among the many corners of the film are other assorted creatures, such as a trio of vampires, a man with a constantly melting face, and a creature beneath the stairs.

To bring these characters to the screen, Burton enlisted a number of previous collaborators. One of them was director Selick, who had built a successful career in stop-motion animation but once had worked as an animator at Disney with Burton.

Selick and his artists brought sequences to life that, three decades later, still astonish (and became iconic). Some of them include the opening “This is Halloween” song, which perfectly establishes the setting and tone of the film, culminating in Jack’s first stunning appearance as he emerges from the soupy, green water of the town’s fountain.

There’s also the dizzying moment when Jack discovers Christmastown, where the camera seemingly tries to keep up with him, and Oogie Boogie’s big musical number, set in black light, with stunningly fluid stop-motion.

Musician Danny Elfman, who had written the score for all of Burton’s live-action efforts, wrote the music and lyrics for Nightmare’s songs and also provided the singing voice of Jack (for more on the music of Nightmare, here is Dave Bossert’s article from 2019.

(L-R) Tim Burton and Danny Elfman
©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

Jack’s speaking voice was provided by Chris Sarandon, with William Hickey as Dr. Finkelstein, Ken Page as Oogie Boogie, Edward Ivory as Santa, and several other Burton regular collaborators in the cast, as well: Catherine O’Hara as Sally and Shock, Paul Reubens as Lock and Glenn Shadix as the mayor.

Burton worked with writer Caroline Thompson, his collaborator on 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, for the screenplay.

When Thompson joined the project, sets had already been created, and the stop-motion puppets had been built. “It was like being an architect and being called in to build a house people were already living in,” remembered Thompson in a 1996 interview.

Additionally, gifted story artist Joe Ranft, who would go on to craft the stories for some of Pixar’s biggest hits, served as storyboard supervisor.

Nightmare was initially slated to be released by Walt Disney Pictures, but as the movie went through production, there was a thought that it had darker concepts that would connect more with an adult audience. The film shifted to Touchstone Pictures, and the release date of Thanksgiving was bumped up to October to align the film more with Halloween than Christmas. Also, to connect the film with what audiences had expected from the director, the official title was changed to Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Through all of these changes and the years, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas slowly rebuilt its devoted audience and continues to. Thirty years later, so many have feelings about the film that echo those of Tim Burton himself, as he told writer Frank Thompson in his 1993 book, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Film The Art The Vision. Burton said:

“This film has all the elements I wanted for it: the holidays (I love both Halloween and Christmas), beautiful but misunderstood characters, drama, sadness, optimism. When I watch it now, after having had it in me for so long,’ he sighs deeply, ‘I love it.’”