Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas Beat Sheet
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered on October 29, 1993, but it had been in the making for nearly a decade before. Burton conjured the idea when he saw Halloween decorations being taken down in a department store window and Christmas decorations being put up in their place—two dramatic holidays colliding. The film, a commercial success, has gone on to become a much-loved Disney classic, being re-released in theatres several times (including 3-D). It ranks in the top 10 of Rotten Tomatoes’ 25 Best Christmas Movies of All Time.
Though I’ve been writing about Monster in the House films, where there is a “sin” or transgression a character commits that brings a “monster” into a “house,” I’m taking a break from this subgenre for the month of December. Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas falls into the Out of the Bottle genre. This is where the main character has a “wish” that’s granted, and a “spell” that envelops them, which then follows with the “lesson” (often be careful what you wish for).
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas works specifically as a “Thing Bottle,” where, as Blake Snyder wrote in his 2005 book, Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, “The curse becomes apparent only after we get what we most desire. This is also one of the signatures of the ‘Thing Bottle’ those tales where magic is delivered to us by totem or elixir.”
Out of the Bottle stories are parable in nature, and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, beginning as a kind of fairy tale, a prose poem, originally conceived by Burton, brings its seasonal magic out of the bottle.
Written by: Caroline Thompson
Based on a story by Tim Burton, Michael McDowell, and Caroline Thompson
Directed by: Henry Selick
Genre: Out of the Bottle (Thing Bottle)
Cousins: Jumanji, Flubber, The Mask, Death Becomes Her, Re-Animator, The Evil Dead, The Babadook, Click, Love Potion #9, The Jacket, Like Mike, Clockstoppers, The Last Mimsy, Lars and the Real Girl, Electric Dreams
How does Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas hit Blake Snyder’s story beats? Here is the Save the Cat!® beat sheet for the film:
Opening Image: We find ourselves in a strange grove of trees with familiar symbols adorning them. One tree has a Thanksgiving turkey, another a St. Patrick’s Day shamrock, another is festooned with a St. Valentine’s Day heart, and still another, a Christmas tree. Over the soundtrack, the narrator (Ed Ivory), like the reader of a time-honored fairy tale, explains, “‘Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams. For the story that you are about to be told, took place in the holiday worlds of old. Now, you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.” The tree with the Halloween jack o’ lantern cracks opens—it’s a door into another realm—and we slip through the doorway, the chords of the music changing.
Set-Up: A glowing jack o’ lantern, seemingly suspended in mid-air, burns, but drawing closer, it’s the head of a willowy scarecrow with a sign above its head that reveals that we’re about to enter HALLOWEEN TOWN and a “This is Halloween” celebration as another successful October 31st comes to a close. The residents of the town, made up of witches, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and ghouls, praise Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King, for another successful Halloween, the holiday that they each put together every day of the year.
Despite the good tidings from his fellow Halloween Town residents, Jack Skellington laments his occupation as the Pumpkin King and wishes he had something more meaningful in his life.
Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a rag-doll creation conjured to life by wheelchair-bound Dr. Finklestein (William Hickey), watches Jack in his lengthy lament around the town cemetery, worried. “Oh, there’s an empty place in my bones that calls out for something unknown,” Jack sings. “The fame and praise come year after year does nothing for these empty tears.” Sally says she knows how he feels—she too is lonely and missing something from her life.
Theme Stated: Several of the Halloween Town’s citizens tell Jack how wonderful he is. Jack accepts this modestly, but their belief in him cannot erase the emptiness he feels in what has become a hollow role. This sentiment is also echoed in Sally who wants excitement. Appreciate who you are and what you have seems to be the sentiment here, and the theme.
Sally returns back to Dr. Finklestein for her arm. (Earlier, she had slipped deadly nightshade into the mad doctor’s tea, rendering her captor unconscious, and escaped.) The doctor reprimands the living rag doll for not doing his bidding as he created her. Sally tells the doctor she’s restless. Finklestein tells her to be patient. Sally doesn’t want to be patient, she’s a new-born rag doll who will soon have an important mission.
Catalyst: Jack and his trusty ghost dog, Zero, venture deep into the forest to a place the Pumpkin King has never before been.
Jack discovers a grove of trees adorned with symbols on them (seen earlier in the Opening Image): a Thanksgiving Turkey, a Halloween Jack O’ Lantern, a St. Valentine’s Day Heart, and the one that intrigues Jack, a Christmas tree. Jack opens that tree-adorning door, finding an empty doorway, and then tumbles down via a magical portal into Christmas Town.
Debate: In a perfect Debate moment, Jack asks himself “What’s This?” as he wanders the snowy, colorful town of Santa Claus. He marvels at the cakes and pies and the industry of the elves. He loves the magical feeling and wants it for himself. This, it seems, is the cure for the emptiness that he was lamenting before back at the Halloween Town cemetery. Christmas Town is a shiny, new thing that Jack wants to seize for himself.
Meanwhile, back in Halloween Town, the Mayor (Glenn Shadix) worries about Jack’s whereabouts. Where is he? There are only 364 days left to plan the next Halloween. The other Halloween ghouls mention that they’ve searched far and wide for Jack Skellington but couldn’t find him. They Debate where their fearless leader could have wandered off to—it’s not like him.
B Story: Poisoning Dr. Finkleston once again, Sally sneaks out for a day on the town. Rag-doll Sally is the love interest and also carries the theme of appreciating what you have. She embodies everything Jack needs to learn but he’s too “snowblind” with Christmas to see the grave mistake he’s making. She appreciates the Pumpkin King for who he is; she just has to convince Jack to believe that what he does is worthwhile.
Break into Two: Jack Skellington returns and calls for a town meeting. Sally, hiding from Dr. Finklestein, watches, enthralled with Jack and what he reveals of his travels. The Pumpkin King tries to explain the joy he felt in Christmas Town. However, the folks of Halloween Town—who are used to scaring people and celebrating all things dark as is their holiday custom and purpose—don’t quite understand the same elation and “Christmas feeling” Jack is trying to convey, so their Pumpkin King has to put it in terms they understand like “Sandy Claws.”
Fun and Games: Now that Jack has Halloween Town excited about Christmas (albeit in a malignant way), the Pumpkin King labors in his lab to mathematically and scientifically figure out the joy of Christmas. He runs all kinds of equations using candy canes and decorations. But Christmas, he learns, isn’t science—it’s faith, it’s a belief, and it’s also a feeling.
And so, believing he has found the key, he decides that “Christmas will be ours.” This is Jack’s goal that drives the story. It’s a wrongheaded goal led by boredom and unhappiness and not truly knowing himself, but it’s a goal and it indeed drives the story on. This, of course, is typical of an Out of Bottle story: the hero making a wrong wish, becoming spellbound by it, and then learning a valuable lesson later.
Now that Jack has discovered the “meaning” of Christmas, the Halloween Town leader puts the October holiday to work “making Christmas.” They don’t have much time—as December 25th is right around the corner. In true Fun and Games fashion, the story is allowed to slacken and we’re given many fun scenes and supporting character-revealing moments, which is what we signed up for: seeing Halloween take on Christmas, when two holidays collide.
Jack Skellington employs various goblins and ghouls for tasks, including Lock, Shock, and Barrel, the town’s malicious trick or treaters, who work on the sly for the mysterious, underground Oogie Boogie, Jack’s nemesis. Jack sends the giggling rapscallions out to get “Sandy Claws” and bring him back to Halloween Town. Jack innocently wants “Sandy” to take a break, but Lock, Shock, and Barrel have other plans for Christmas Town’s Kris Kringle.
Midpoint: At first, Lock, Shock, and Barrel are unsuccessful in nabbing Christmas Town’s most famous resident, taking the fluffy, pink Easter Bunny from Easter Town instead. However, when the trick or treaters do kidnap the right target and bring “Sandy Claws” to Halloween Town—it’s a false victory and this raises the stakes.
This is the point of no return—they have Santa now; there won’t be any traditional Christmas without him. Jack Skellington tells Santa Claus in a going public moment, also indicative of Midpoints, that he’s taking over Christmas for the year. In addition to raising the stakes, this also gets the clock ticking as it’s Christmas eve. Sally tries to warn Jack this is a mistake—that he’s the Pumpkin King not Sandy Claws—but he doesn’t listen, crossing A and B Stories. Jack hasn’t fallen hard enough yet to learn his lesson of this malignant fairy tale.
Bad Guys Close In: Sally has a premonition that Jack’s desperate efforts will be a disaster with a vision of a Christmas tree alighting in flame. In a last-ditch effort to stop Jack, Sally creates a fog that will keep Jack and his sleigh grounded. However, Zero, Jack’s ghost dog, has a light-up jack o’ lantern nose similar to Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’s. And so, thwarting the soupy fog, Zero guides Jack’s sleigh pulled by eight skeleton reindeer (courtesy of Dr. Finklestein).
The sleigh, bundled with horrifying gifts from Halloween Town, is bound for the place that is recipient of the holidays—our world. Sally laments that Jack and she will never be together, and that she’s destined to be alone. When Bad Guys Close In, it’s not just external forces, it’s also internal. Self-doubt is Sally’s bad guy.
As Jack destroys Christmas with his good intentions, Lock, Shock, and Barrel send “Sandy Claws” to bad guy Oogie Boogie’s twisted, black-lit, underground lair. Boogie is a gambling spirit, and so he plays with Santa’s fate with a roll of the dice while singing a jazzy tune. Is it curtains for Santa Claus and Christmas?
Back in the human world, Jack-as-Santa’s presents don’t go over quite as planned. (In what seems a nod to A Charlie Brown Christmas, only the children are seen, adults aren’t—only hands and shadows, no faces. The focus is on the children.) As kids are being terrorized by giant snakes eating Christmas trees and scary Jack in the boxes chasing them, parents complain, calling the local authorities. The army readies anti-aircraft weaponry to take down “Santa’s” sleigh. The “bad guys” are closing in for Jack too.
At the height of his ego, before everything comes crashing down and Jack “dies,” the skeleton Santa mistakenly thinks that the search lights are celebratory and the blasting flak in the sky from anti-aircraft guns (trying to hit him) is a token of appreciation for him doing such a fine job. This is the peak of Jack’s self-delusion.
Back in Halloween Town, Sally tries to undo Jack’s mistake and rescue “Sandy Claws” from Oogie Boogie’s clutches; however, she is captured. It looks like curtains for them both as Oogie Boogie rolls the dice to determine each of their fates.
All Is Lost: Jack is shot down, his sleigh and skeletal reindeer destroyed. Santa is nearly lost at the hands of Oogie Boogie. Not only has Halloween lost their Pumpkin King, but Christmas Town is about to lose their king, all in one night—two holidays that will be destroyed forever. Being two of the finest holidays of the year, Halloween and Christmas gone forever is a bummer for humans too.
Back in Halloween Town, it’s a far cry from the opening number, “This is Halloween.” Every ghoulish citizen is crestfallen that Jack has been destroyed, which they saw thanks to the witches’ “vision” in the water. Jack was their king, their anchor; All Is Lost for them when the Pumpkin King is no more. They’ve lost the compass of their life, their purpose vanquished forever.
Dark Night of the Soul: In a snowy, human-world cemetery, appropriate, as Jack’s old ego is dead (and it was a cemetery where he first lamented his displeasure that began this whole mess), Jack finally sees that he was wrong. The lesson is clear to him. It took the cannon fire and a tumble from the sky to convince him. Sally was right, if he had listened. Only his trusty ghost dog, Zero, is with him. Every Dark Night of the Soul moment must have a death, and for Jack, it’s his old ways of thinking. He’s a new skeleton. But is it too late? Has the damage been done forever? Are Halloween and Christmas destroyed? Can he set things right again?
Break into Three: Jack Skellington, finally realizing his true purpose, decides he is the one and only Pumpkin King and that he can’t wait for next Halloween (as he’ll “really make ‘em scream”). But what about “Sandy Claws”? Jack and Zero return to Halloween Town through a nifty portal in the human world cemetery. Jack has learned a lesson, but the Finale is his final test to see if the lesson sticks.
1. Gathering of the Team: Jack, knowing that Lock, Shock, and Barrel would ultimately betray him and take “Sandy Claws” to Oogie Boogie despite his wishes, goes to Storm the Castle.
2. Executing the Plan: Oogie is about to destroy St. Nick and then Sally. Spiderlike, Jack shows up to stop the villain from carrying out his plan.
3. High Tower Surprise: Ooogie Boogie not only has his dice, but a few aces up his sleeve, and launches an all-out attack on Jack in the form of slice-and-dice, pop-up playing cards and one-armed bandits armed with revolvers — the deadly machinations of a sadistic gambler.
4. Dig Deep Down: Using his willowy frame, which moves almost spiderlike, Jack thwarts Oogie Boogie’s defensive weapons. He is the King of Halloween after all.
5. Executing New Plan: Jack grabs a thread of Oogie Boogie’s sackcloth garment and tosses it up into his eight-ball machine—unraveling the dark villain and revealing a galaxy of writhing bugs beneath, all burned in the boiling vat that was intended for Sally and Santa. Jack frees Sally and Santa, who says there’s still time to save Christmas. Jack tells Sally that she was right all along, he should have listened.
Final Image: Halloween Town is back to normal, except for Christmas snow, a trace of something new. The Halloween Town citizens get their own “What’s This” snowy miracle and finally understand the feeling. Riding high in his sleigh, Santa is setting Christmas right again—taking away the Halloween Town offerings and replacing them with more, uh, traditional gifts like wagging-tail puppies. In the snow-kissed Halloween Town graveyard, Jack Skellington joins Sally, who was there for him all along, if he had only paid attention. All is right with the Pumpkin King with his new, worldly wisdom from a hard lesson learned—perfectly bookended with the opening lament, but this time… with Sally… he is complete.
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