Jack Skellington and friends comfortably bridge Halloween and Christmas, thanks to loopy humour, honest flaws, and relatable emotion. 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.
“Immersed in the light, Jack was no longer haunted,” the poem says. “He had finally found the feeling he wanted.”
The film gives Jack the speaking voice of Chris Sarandon (The Princess Bride), and the stop-motion animation gifts him with dance moves akin to a Fred Astaire who’s stiff from sitting too long. (Veteran composer Danny Elfman provides Jack’s singing voice, as well as whimsical tunes like “What’s This?” and “This Is Halloween” that we’ve been humming ever since.)
The film also expands Jack’s world, adding characters like Dr. Finkelstein, the scientist who pops open his head to scratch his brain; the literally two-faced mayor; and ghoulish trick-or-treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel, who kidnap Santa Claus after first snagging the Easter Bunny. Thank the animators also for Oogie Boogie (Ken Page), 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.
Stuffed with autumn leaves, Sally (Catherine O’Hara) frequently goes to pieces — but all by her design. Finkelstein created her as a caretaker, but she has an independent streak as prevalent as her stitching. She detaches and re-attaches her limbs like a superpower, nonchalantly sewing herself back together.
Jack finally joining Sally to rescue Santa and recognising 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 energized. “For a moment, why, I even touched the sky,” he marvels. The poem’s Santa Claus 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.
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 at Christmas and Halloween 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.