The Nightmare Before Christmas Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2000


'Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place perhaps you've seen in your dreams. For the story you're about to be told began with the holiday worlds of old. Now you've probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven't I'd say its time you begun, for the holidays are the result of much fuss and hard work for the worlds that create them for us. Well, you see now, quite simply, that's all that they do, making one unique holiday especially for you. But once a calamity ever so great occurred when two holidays met by mistake.
The Nightmare Before Christmas box art

Just in time for Halloween comes the re-release of "The Nightmare Before Christmas", director Tim Burton's twisted take on those animated television specials that show up around the holiday season, such as "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" or "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer". Originally released in 1993, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is a marvel of animation that took stop-action director Henry Selick (who later did "James and the Giant Peach") over three years of painstaking effort to complete. Even seven years later, after audiences have become long-accustomed to the advances in computer graphics, this animated classic is still a technical marvel, with its attention to detail and complexity in both movement and interaction. However, what I found most surprising about Tim Burton's masterpiece was how it eloquently illustrated a number of MBA concepts, such as leadership, change management, business model re-engineering, and core competency.

In the world of "The Nightmare Before Christmas", every major holiday has its own town, where its denizens spend the entire year preparing for their one day to shine. In Halloweentown, Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon of "Bordello of Blood", sung by composer Danny Elfman), the so-called 'Pumpkin King', has faithfully guided the citizens in organizing the festivities for their annual Halloween parade. However, after years of dedicated service, Jack finds himself bored with the old routine, and yearns for something completely different. Depressed, he wanders into the woods where he stumbles onto a doorway into Christmastown.

What's this? They're busy throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads.

It is here that he finds himself inspired by the sights and sounds of Christmas, a magical place built around festivity instead of fear. Driven by his good intentions and ambition, Jack returns home to spread the word about his amazing discovery. He then devotes all the resources of Halloweentown into taking over the Christmas holiday, which includes making a number of 'improvements' (which are quite hilarious when they are unleashed on the good girls and boys of the world) and usurping 'Sandy Claws' in the annual sleigh ride. However, not everyone in Halloween town agrees with the new strategic direction. Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara, seen recently in "Best in Show"), a Frankenstein-like creation who also holds a torch for Jack, has a bad feeling about the plan and tries to warn him of the danger, but to no avail. Not surprisingly, despite his best intentions, Jack's plan ends up almost ruining Christmas.

The triumvirate of Lock, Shock and Barrel kidnap Sandy Claws

If you have seen enough Disney animated musicals or those 'claymation' animated Christmas specials, you will probably be delighted by what "The Nightmare Before Christmas" has to offer. The overall framework is the same, with dozens of cute characters breaking out into song as the story unfolds. However, given that the story is based on ideas and characters from Tim Burton (whose dark and unconventional portfolio includes the likes of "Edward Scissorhands", "Batman", and "Beetlejuice"), you can certainly expect a macabre twist to the proceedings. Guillotines, severed heads, vampires, spiders, and all sorts of Halloween standards are present, though it never gets gory or frightening-- call it 'cartoon horror'.

The animation itself is a technical marvel. The characters are incredibly expressive (apparently, the character of Jack had 150 interchangeable heads to get the entire range of emotion needed), and their graceful movements make it easy to forget that it was shot with traditional stop-action techniques. The attention to detail is also evident in the showcase scenes, where there are hundreds of individually animated elements on the screen, such as the opening Halloween parade and the over-the-top dance of the Oogey-Boogey Man (voiced by Ken Page of "All Dogs Go to Heaven").

Attacked by Christmas toys? That's strange... that's the second toy complaint we've had.

However, what is most impressive about "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is the extensive subtext of business management concepts contained within the script. Throughout the years, I've come across a number of films that can be used to demonstrate business management concepts in action. For example, "Apollo 13" is an excellent illustration of teaming, while both "The Horse Whisperer" and "Pleasantville" expound a number of change management concepts. What makes "The Nightmare Before Christmas" so unique is how many concepts it touches on within its 76-minute running time.

Sally and Jack Skellington

Jack's attempt to redefine Halloweentown's business model (i.e. take over the Christmas holiday) falters due to three key failings: lack of attention to change management, weak leadership, and a poor understanding of Halloweentown's core competency. After 'getting religion' from his visit to Christmastown, Jack develops a vision for taking over the holiday and making improvements. Unfortunately, he does not effectively communicate this vision to the citizens of Halloweentown, since it requires a complete paradigm shift to fully comprehend it. The citizens of Halloweentown are used to fashioning products and services that are grotesque, scary, and fatal, and their entire corporate culture has been shaped around this core competency. Thus, Jack finds difficulty in explaining joy, cheer, and goodwill towards all men, since these are alien concepts.

However, Jack finds success when he is able to explain it in terms they are used to, such as referring to the head of Christmastown as 'Sandy Claws'. Unfortunately, the result is poor comprehension of what the new strategic direction is all about, and Jack's followers end up applying concepts of the old Halloween business model in order to implement Christmas. In addition, Jack does not properly establish forums for his followers to provide feedback or input on the new strategic direction, and as a result, Sally's concerns are never raised. Jack may certainly have garnered agreement, but he has not truly secured their buy-in.

Furthermore, as plans get underway, Jack ends up delegating all activities to his followers without any sort of governance process in place, thereby losing sight of the day-to-day operations. It is not until too late (when Christmas is actually in production) that Jack realizes that the projects undertaken by his followers have strayed quite a bit from his original vision.

It is then that Jack learns that simply announcing a new strategic direction is not enough. To be truly successful, he needs to instill a new culture in his organization, understand the core competency of his organization and how it must evolve to support the new business model, guide and educate his followers into the required new mode of thinking, establish two-way communication between management and staff throughout the entire change process, and establish procedures to ensure that all activities are aligned with the new strategic direction. Unfortunately, the business world is littered with stories like Jack's, such as the dime-a-dozen dot-com retailers that imploded last year in the fourth quarter (now there's a nightmare before Christmas!)

Even if you don't buy into the MBA interpretation of the story, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is still a remarkable animated film that is sure to delight and entertain children and adults alike. Built on the familiar foundation of the animated musical, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" takes the art form in a new and unexpected direction, creating a magical bounty for the eyes, the heart, and the intellect.

Images courtesy of Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved.


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