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'The Nightmare Before Christmas' turns 30


Thirty years ago this weekend, a film completely out of the ordinary arrived in theaters, and it probably had a lot of moviegoers asking the same question.


DANNY ELFMAN: (As Jack Skellington, singing) What's this? What's this? There's color everywhere. What's this? There's white things in the air. What's this? I can't believe my eyes. I must be dreaming. Wake up, Jack, this isn't fair. What's this?

DETROW: This was "The Nightmare Before Christmas," of course, the story of Pumpkin King Jack Skellington's attempt to take over Christmas.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, singing) Making Christmas. Making Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, singing) Snakes and mice get wrapped up so nice with spider legs and pretty bows.

DETROW: The catchy music and lyrics came from Oscar-nominated composer Danny Elfman, and Jack's gleefully ghoulish world came from the mind of Tim Burton, the man responsible for other dark and quirky '90s entertainment like "Edward Scissorhands" and "Beetlejuice." But with "The Nightmare Before Christmas," a lot of fans feel that Burton and director Henry Selick made a film unlike any other.

JORDAN CRUCCHIOLA: I think it was something that always came across about Tim Burton's stuff in that era was that, like, you could feel it. You watched Jack walk through the pumpkin patch, and you can, like, feel yourself crunching on pumpkin underneath your feet.

DETROW: Jordan Crucchiola writes about film and is a huge horror film buff. She notes that "Nightmare" was so unlike any other animated film that Disney had produced at the time, that the studio really didn't know what to do with it.

CRUCCHIOLA: I really appreciate now just how incredibly grotesque it is. This is nightmarish. And this is terrifying.

DETROW: It didn't seem like it had kids in mind. Disney wound up releasing the movie under Touchstone Pictures, their adult-oriented banner. The film was critically acclaimed, but only a modest success at the box office, maybe because too many parents were scared away. Todd Lookinland, who built sets for the film, says he could understand.

TODD LOOKINLAND: We never thought of it as a kid's movie.

DETROW: But it turns out it is a movie that a lot of kids loved and a lot of kids still love, including my 5-year-old son.

What do you like about "The Nightmare Before Christmas"?


DETROW: Yeah. Who's your favorite character?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The one that I'm wearing right now, Jack Skellington.

DETROW: Because you're wearing Jack Skellington pajamas.

And millions of other families have made the film a staple of the Halloween season. To mark the 30th anniversary, Disney has rereleased the film in theaters nationwide. To Todd Lookinland, it was clear right from the beginning that this was a special movie.

LOOKINLAND: You know, on this movie, every single thing was made by hand. We didn't use computers to build anything. It was all hand-built.

DETROW: Along with that careful crafting, one thing that Todd Lookinland remembers about the production of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was its sheer scale.

LOOKINLAND: The thing that was exciting as a set builder on this was that there was no rulebook. We didn't know how to do any of this. We just had to make it up as we went along. Everything had to be very rigid and very durable to last through the animation process. Animators were crawling around on top of these sets to get access to the puppets, and so they had to be very strong, very durable. We built hundreds of sets. And, in fact, we had to build multiples of many sets.

DETROW: Lookinland remembers the thrill he got when he first started seeing "Nightmare Before Christmas" merchandise pop up around the holiday.

LOOKINLAND: It was kind of surprising at first to start seeing Jack Skellington's face on, you know, like, kids' backpacks and stuff, and was like, wow, that's a Jack Skellington backpack or sweatshirt or something. It's just amazing to me that it's had this staying power.

DETROW: Jordan Crucchiola remembers "The Nightmare Before Christmas" staying in rotation on her family's television growing up.

CRUCCHIOLA: There was not a wrong time of year to be watching "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

DETROW: Crucchiola writes about film and is also the host of the podcast "Feeling Seen." We called her up to talk about "The Nightmare Before Christmas's" enduring appeal, but we had to start with a very important question.

To you, Halloween movie or Christmas movie?

CRUCCHIOLA: For me, this is a Christmas movie. I think this, for me, is primarily actually a Christmas movie.

DETROW: Interesting.

CRUCCHIOLA: Yeah. But, I mean, I will watch it on Halloween and carve a pumpkin, but there's something about it that just makes me feel Christmas.

DETROW: Would you stand by that and put a 13-foot Jack Skellington on your yard for Christmas?

CRUCCHIOLA: (Laughter) Yeah, I absolutely would. I would put a Home-Depot-sized Jack Skellington on my front yard.

DETROW: As he does, Tim Burton was pulling from a wide variety of influences for the look and feel of this film and the sets in similar ways of "Edward Scissorhands" and in a lot of other of his classic works. Some of those influences are deep cuts that I think most viewers probably don't even register or just now probably think about them as Tim-Burton-type styles.


DETROW: Can you help us understand what he was trying to do there?

CRUCCHIOLA: In the '90s, we were at, like, the peak of what we could accomplish with physical, practical, in-camera effects without having jumped over the threshold of high-quality CGI and digital effects. So if it was going to be on screen, it kind of had to be there. It had to be there. It had to be tangible. It had to be real. You had matte paintings hanging in the background. You had to be able to touch it and see it for the most part. Like, obviously, there was digital effects happening at the time. But it was this incredible era of sort of the most extravagant we could be with practical effects. And you have this time where someone with such an incredible, specific, strange, idiosyncratic visual signature could put his things to life on screen, like, almost 100%, like, within your hands. Like, you can feel Tim Burton movies.

DETROW: Let's talk about Jack Skellington for a moment, because he is this beloved character. My house is increasingly filled with all types of Jack Skellington paraphernalia, and I'm OK with that. And he means well, right? Like, what he is doing...


DETROW: ...Is earnest.


CHRIS SARANDON: (As Jack Skellington) Sandy Claws in person? What a pleasure to meet you. You don't need to have another worry about Christmas this year.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Sandy Claws) What? What?

SARANDON: (As Jack Skellington) Consider this a vacation, Sandy, a reward. It's your turn to take it easy.

DETROW: There's a counterargument that he's a pouty emo guy, and he's scaring kids and being incredibly mean to Santa Claus and to the children he's trying to help. How do you come down on all of that? And how do you think Jack Skellington, in the end, redeems himself and comes out on the positive side of the ledger?

CRUCCHIOLA: You know what? Like, there's there's such a naivete about his scaring of children. It's something, like, this is what we're here. This is our purpose. This is what we do. And they celebrate it as this wonderful act. And, like, the community gets so excited about it. This is Halloween. And then, like, when he takes Santa, like, he really thinks he's doing the right thing, and he is truly shocked when he finds out that he's not. To me, Jack's biggest crime is that he has, like, a mansplaining posture on absolutely everything.


ELFMAN: (Singing) You know, I think this Christmas thing is not as tricky as it seems. And why should they have all the fun? It should belong to anyone, not anyone, in fact, but me. Why, I could make a Christmas tree.

CRUCCHIOLA: Jack's sincere belief that he can have Christmas is, like, endearing to me. But Jack's, like, insistence that he can figure out the meaning of Christmas and that he's going to let everyone know what Christmas means, it's like Jack needs to decondition himself from his patriarchal influences to think that he is entitled to absolutely everything. So that is where I have a little hang-up with Jack Skellington, because he does have that moody, indie, pouty, emo boy thing about him...


CRUCCHIOLA: ...Which is fairly annoying. But when he, like, when he puts himself - yes, he goes to correct Christmas. He, like, frees Santa, gets him back out there. But when Jack puts himself on the line by going up against Oogie Boogie...


SARANDON: (As Jack Skellington) Hello, Oogie.

KEN PAGE: (As Oogie Boogie) Jack, but they said you were dead. You must be double dead.

CRUCCHIOLA: ...That, to me, is, like, that's the grand heroic gesture, obviously. He's putting himself in harm's way. Jack's not outsourcing solving the problem to somebody else. If one thing Jack Skellington can be credited for throughout the movie, it's that if he sees a problem, he is going to fix it himself. He's not going to pawn it off on other people. He is an individual of personal responsibility. So I do believe that through empathy and understanding and conversation, Jack can get away from his tendency to think that the whole world is just like his little goody bag that he gets to pick through.

DETROW: These are all good points, but in fairness, the entire town does treat him like he's the most important person in the world. You know, like, that is the first 20 minutes of the movie.

CRUCCHIOLA: Absolutely. No. He is such a product of hero worship. We see how this man has become who he is. And, you know, I think there's a vital lesson there for everybody in seeing, like, listen, when you treat celebrity like they are beyond consequence, they will behave like they are beyond consequence.

DETROW: Last thing I'm wondering what you think about, and I guess this is going to be a leading question. There have been so many movies or shows that I loved that have been rebooted in one way or another, and the reboot just leaves me cold, and I'm sad it didn't happen. Every once in a while, that's not the case, but do you think there would be anything to gain from some sort of reimagining or rebooting of this film?

CRUCCHIOLA: I have a little twinge of concern that, like, sort of a modern vernacular would sort of - like, I don't want to hear Jack Skellington say, like, so that's a thing. Like, I don't want to hear that. But, like, even that I would be willing to, like, let go, let God and accept that, you know, social vernacular mores change with time. If this were to be redone, it could - it has to be the claymation. It can't be 3D animation. It can't be even the most gorgeous thing that Pixar could render and put in front of us, has to be this. Like, there's something about the macabre grossness of so much of what comes up in front of you in "Nightmare Before Christmas" that, like, I would accept it and be so curious to see what a filmmaker would do with a different interpretation of it as long as it was still done in the same style of animation.


CRUCCHIOLA: You've got to have - to me, that's the make or break. I will truly be open minded to anything else, but that has to stay.

DETROW: Jordan Crucchiola, writer and host of the podcast "Feeling Seen," I love talking "Nightmare Before Christmas" with you. Thank you so much.

CRUCCHIOLA: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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