Written by: Valerie Kalfrin, CC2K Staff Writer
Jack Skellington can’t stay in his lane—and we love that about him. The Pumpkin King of Halloween has been tumbling into Christmas for 25 years now, trying to translate its enchantment with comically eerie results.
The Nightmare Before Christmas introduced us to holidays as actual places, not just dates, and created an enduring mascot that bridges two of the biggest ones. Not bad for a skeleton with an existential crisis.
Before his bald mug adorned bedroom slippers, notepads, T-shirts, and mugs, Jack was a rock star only to the spookily kooky residents of Halloween Town, who adore the macabre and can’t wait to prepare for next year. Jack gamely greets the masses, but he’s going through the motions. Like Ariel wanting to see where the people are, he wants more.
“I’m sick of the scaring, the terror, the fright. / I’m tired of being something that goes bump in the night,” he confides in the original poem by Tim Burton. “I don’t like graveyards, and I need something new. / There must be more to life than just yelling, ‘Boo!’”
Burton, director of Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands when Nightmare debuted, wrote the poem in the 1980s after watching retail decorations change from Halloween to Christmas. (A book version with Burton’s illustrations was released for the film’s twentieth anniversary.) In the poem, the only main characters were dapper Jack in his bat bow tie; his ghost dog, Zero, with his jack-’o-lantern nose; and Santa.
Screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands, The Secret Garden) and adapter Michael McDowell (Beetlejuice) followed the poem’s basic arc for the film. A mopey Jack stumbles upon Christmas Town, becomes enraptured by the colorful lights and beds with no monsters beneath, and decides in his myopic fervor to give Santa a break and stretch his creative wings.
In both versions, Jack isn’t arrogant in thinking he can do Christmas better. He’s just jazzed in a way he hasn’t been in ages, overjoyed to the point of overconfidence. He scoops up snow and anything that sparkles, wanting to hug it all tight, take it home, and share it somehow.
“Immersed in the light, Jack was no longer haunted,” the poem says. “He had finally found the feeling he wanted.”
The film adds characters like the evil scientist who pops open his head to scratch his brain; the literally two-faced mayor; and ghoulish trick-or-treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel. It also includes Oogie Boogie, the burlap-sack bogeyman and real antagonist who seizes upon “Sandy Claws” to eat him, and Sally, the ragdoll who loves Jack from afar and acts as his conscience. Jack finally joining Sally to rescue Santa and recognizing her as a kindred spirit shows the spindly fellow’s growth.
On page and screen, Jack and his peers’ efforts at Christmas charm fail royally, with gruesome gifts like shrunken heads, a vampire teddy bear, and a man-eating wreath. Alarmed, the military shoots his coffin sleigh from the sky.
In the film, Jack reckons with defeat but then becomes reenergized. “For a moment, why, I even touched the sky,” he marvels.
The poem’s Santa is kind about the whole escapade. “My dear Jack,” he says, “I applaud your intent. I know wreaking such havoc was not what you meant.”
Onscreen, he scolds Jack and says of Sally, “She’s the only one who makes any sense around this insane asylum.” But his anger blows over quickly, and just like in the poem, he shows his forgiveness by making it snow in Halloween Town, transporting that indescribable awe Jack tried to convey in seconds. Jack, a bit wiser, emerges happy with his place in the world and Sally by his side.
The stop-motion animated film took three years to complete on an estimated budget of $18 million. It has gone on to gross $75 million in its lifetime, according to Box Office Mojo. Clocking in at a brisk 76 minutes, it was the first hit for director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Coraline). Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride) voices Jack, Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone) is Sally, Ken Page (All Dogs Go to Heaven) is Oogie Boogie, and veteran composer Danny Elfman provides Jack’s singing voice, as well as whimsical tunes like “This Is Halloween” that we’ve been humming ever since.
Walt Disney Pictures considered producing a computer-animated sequel at one point, but Burton convinced them not to do so. He felt protective of Nightmare’s world, noting, “I felt the movie had a purity to it.”
That’s only part of its cross-generational appeal. Jack walks the tightrope of being cute without cloying, and especially for youngsters, he’s the right amount of scary. With his hollow but widely expressive eyes, who could find him frightening, even when he scowls? He’s mischievous, gleeful, and a delight to anyone who find his “What’s This?” wonder infectious.
He’s become a welcome sight year after year because he ultimately doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Jack can’t help but extend his holiday reign because he has the naive enthusiasm we all remember, a yearning we understand, and a flawed but undeniably pure heart.
Valerie Kalfrin is a multiple award-winning journalist, film and culture critic, essayist, screenwriter, and emerging script consultant. She’s a “Tomatometer-approved” critic on RottenTomatoes.com and has written for RogerEbert.com, The Hollywood Reporter, The Script Lab, Script magazine, ScreenCraft, The Guardian, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and elsewhere.