In Halloween Town, the inhabitants are congratulating themselves on another successful night of scares, but the Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and sung by Danny Elfman) is strangely dissatisfied. He feels there must be more to life than this, and wanders off alone, into the forest, until he stumbles across a group of trees bearing doors with pictures - a brightly coloured egg for Easter, a turkey for Thanksgiving, and a decorated tree for Christmas among them. Intrigued, Jack opens the Christmas door and is drawn into Christmas Town, which gives him a great idea: instead of Halloween, he and his friends will celebrate Yuletide this year!
Although directed by Henry Selick, The Nightmare Before Christmas has the gothic imagination of producer Tim Burton stamped all over it. He devised the tale and its stop motion animated characters, which was adapted by Michael McDowell with a screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Mixing a good natured story of the macabre with composer Danny Elfman's deftly-worded songs, the result is a film that appeals to both adults and children alike, and maybe even more so to adults, especially those who paint their fingernails black.
Jack's idea is seriously flawed, but only Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara), the stitched-together creation of the Evil Scientist, realises what a terrible mistake he's making. All the characters are intricately designed, with their own individual tics and idiosyncrasies; for example, the wheelchair-bound Scientist has a habit of lifting the top of his head and scratching his exposed brain. The mayor has two faces that spin around, depending on how he's feeling and there are various vampires, werewolves, witches, mummies and unclassifiable horrors that act as a chorus to the action.
To ensure his version of Christmas is not disrupted, Jack orders little monsters Lock, Shock and Barrel to kidnap Santa Claus (or Sandy Claws as they call him), but it all goes horribly wrong when the trio deliver the jolly fat man into the hands of Oogie Boogie, a malevolent menace who threatens to put Santa to death. Despite being a cheerful fantasy, the gruesome elements are never far away, but even the darkest jokes - fairy lights around an electric chair, or hanging an angel decoration - are skipped over with a lightness of touch that permeates the whole production, remaining sprightly throughout and never dragging.
Perhaps the most endearing aspect is that Jack means well, but isn't aware of his limitations, not considering that his skull-like head and inappropriate presents might not be appreciated during the season of goodwill. Some of the best gags see the effects of Jack's mayhem: "What did Santa bring you?" asks one mother, only for her child to show her a shrunken head. The military is called on to shoot down Jack's ghoulish sleigh, but he still wishes everyone a merry Christmas as he plummets to the earth. The message of this is stick to what you're good at, or more restrictively, a leopard can't change his spots, but the enchanting realisation and ingenious presentation make this a Christmas cult classic for those who are more sentimental about Halloween. Why wasn't there an Abominable Snowman around to tell Jack about the festive season? Could have saved a lot of trouble.