It’s a rare person indeed who hasn’t, at some point in their life, felt bored with their existence, numbed to the once-transcendant novelty of something that used to be an overriding passion.
Jack Skellington, the “Pumpkin King” of Halloween Night and the ring master extraordinaire of everything ghoulish, goblinish and monsterish that goes bump in the night on All Hallow’s Eve, knows just how that feels.
Fresh from another triumphant night of orchestrating vampires to suck blood, choreographing witches to ride cackling across the sky and deftly hiding disembodied ghosts and the undead under children’s beds and in dark shadows, he is feeling despondent, the old thrill of scaring people long gone.
Giving up his role isn’t an option of course since Halloween is his life, or death, and so he wanders off dejectedly into the skeletal woods around the town, his faithful dog ghost Zero floating behind him, hoping for some kind of answer.
Like many people who go in search of a road to Damascus epiphany, he finds one but it’s not quite what the rotting corpse ordered.
Happening on a copse of trees, with each one containing a doorway to another holiday – Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Easter etc – he curiously opens the door to Christmas Town, which as you can imagine is about as far removed from Halloween as you can get.
Where Halloween has monsters and ghastly surprises and scarily animate objects, Christmas is all candy canes, reindeer rides, chestnuts roasting over open fires and cosy stories with mum.
Not to mention Santa, presents and elves in abundance.
Jack, voiced by Chris Sarandon (singing by Danny Elfman) is transfixed, enraptured and enamoured beyond belief, hardly daring to believe that there is a world as gloriously wonderful and polar opposite different to his own.
This sets in train an idea – he will bring Christmas to the zombies, mummies, ghosts and deformed beings of Halloween Town and in so doing give them, and himself of course, a whole new lease on scary life.
Funny thing is, and you can probably see this coming, the inhabitants of Halloween Town hilariously can’t conceive of a holiday where you give people gifts to make them happy, where decorations are bright, festive and colourful, and where the object is to inspire happiness and bliss rather than screaming terror.
Even so Jack persists, eventually going so far as to kidnap Santa Claus and hold his captive while he goes off and deliver Halloween Town’s ideas of gifts – as you might imagine even Jack doesn’t fully understand what makes a good Christmas gift, ripping apart toys and scientifically experimenting on them to divine what makes them so damn appealing – which goes down like a lead balloon with children who don’t appreciate being scared instead of excited on Christmas eve.
It’s a disaster and after being shot out of the sky by a nervous military, alarmed by all the reports of threatening, frightening presents, he finds himself back in Halloween Town, chastened but also emboldened, having rediscovered that he loves being the Pumpkin King and what’s more is damn good at his role.
It’s a sage lesson in knowing who you are and sticking to what you love doing, embedded in a suite of gloriously creepy, fun songs composed by Danny Elfman which bring Jack’s journey from disenchanted head of Halloween to a renewed figure of frightening fun by way of almost ruining Christmas.
Beautifully balancing sweet intent – Jack is the object of unremitting affection by Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a corpse bride created by a Frankenstein-like Doctor Finklestein (William Hickey), who longs to be free and give her restless fulfilment the chance to roam; she is also the one who convinces Jack to look for renewed purpose closer to home – and amusing scariness (the Boogeyman, voiced by Ken Page, is freakishly scary but also hilariously inept), The Nightmare Before Christmas is a stop-motion animation delight.
Both Christmas Town and Halloween Town, and all their respective inhabitants are a joy to behold, sprung forth from Tim Burton’s delightfully-twisted imagination, and coming alive, or dead as the case may be, with verve, a playful sense of fun and sharply-drawn visual presence.
The world-building is exquisitely good, delivering up two holiday communities that would be fun to visit and perhaps even live in, depending on your celebratory proclivities (give me Christmas any time thank you), and in which you can imagine all manner of good and scary things taking place.
The narrative too is well-formed, delivering up moralising without mawkishness, scares without horrifying nightmares and sweetness without a trace of saccharine, much as you’d expect from Tim Burton who is gifted with the ability to simultaneously deliver up stories and characters that are both dark and twisted and uplifting and all too human.
Short of time? Feeling a little Millenial-ish? How about The Nightmare of Christmas told through emojis?