Leafing through the latest issue of my favorite magazine, I saw a full-page ad for an elaborate limited edition cuckoo clock celebrating The Nightmare Before Christmas.
There’s Jack Skellington, weary of his eternal career as the Pumpkin King, decked out as “Sandy Claws” instead. Zero, his spectral pooch, has been pressed into service as both Rudolph and this clock’s cuckoo. Santa’s snow-covered, candy cane workshop forms the clock’s body; his elves ready packages as Lock, Shock and Barrel look on.
Less Gothic and more festive than the Bradford Exchange’s previous Nightmare Before Christmas cuckoo clock – that’s right; there’s a market strong enough to support two cuckoo clocks inspired by the same movie – this terrific-looking timepiece is, like the film itself, a marvelous mashup of the United States’ two most popular holidays, and is only the latest addition to twenty years of Nightmare Before Christmas toys and collectibles.
Ambivalence Before Acceptance
When The Nightmare Before Christmas premiered in late October 1993, Disney, the studio behind it, wasn’t so sure they’d have a hit on their hands with this strange, stop-animated attempt to infuse All Hallows’ Eve haunts with Yuletide cheer. (Or is it the other way around?)
On the one hand, the studio wanted it to be a success, so much so that they used Tim Burton’s name as a marketing strategy for the first time. Although Burton—acclaimed for directing Beetlejuice (1988), Edward Scissorhands (1990) and Michael Keaton’s two outings as Batman (in 1989 and 1992)—had conceived of and written Nightmare, he didn’t direct it; Henry Selick did, in his feature-directing debut.
On the other hand, Disney was leery enough of the movie’s admittedly bizarre imagery and often macabre humor, worthy of Edward Gorey and Charles Addams, to release it under its more mature Touchstone label.
Perhaps most telling, Disney didn’t make much Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise available. As Lisa Morton writes in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, “Nightmare’s merchandising remains one of the few cases in which initial demand actually exceeded the amount of material available.” (One other case is the original Star Wars in 1977, so Nightmare is in excellent company!)
When the movie exceeded Disney’s modest expectations, however, especially once it opened overseas the next year, more merchandise followed. Fans of this painstakingly crafted, visually spellbinding, musical love letter to America’s two biggest festivities have never again faced a shortage of toys and collectibles to sustain their excitement. “Since its initial release,” writes James M. Curtis in Family Films in Global Cinema, “Nightmare has developed into a marketing and merchandising phenomenon.”
Hasbro’s Original Nightmare Before Christmas Toys
Every so often, fans of the film turn to the internet to hunt down a vintage line of Nightmare Before Christmas McDonald’s toys from Happy Meals. The only problem is, as much as this Happy Meal may seem like a no-brainer, it has never been produced. It certainly wasn’t on the fast food giant’s menu in 1993, when Disney itself still considered the product something of a risk.
At that time, the only major toy game in Halloween Town (or any of the Holiday Worlds, for that matter) was Hasbro. The company released action figures of a dozen characters from the film: two versions of Jack Skellington (as himself and as Sandy Claws), Sally, “Evil Scientist” (though he’s named Dr. Finkelstein in the film), the Mayor, Oogie Boogie (who glowed in the dark), Behemoth, Werewolf, Santa Claus (apparently the rarest of the bunch) and—in a special 3-pack—Lock, Shock and Barrel.
Of various shapes and sizes (Jack measured about 8 inches tall), all figures came with accessories. Jack had his Pumpkin King mask (thankfully non-flaming), Sally had her purse, the Mayor his megaphone—Oogie Boogie even came stuffed with plastic bugs. Some had moveable features, too. Behemoth’s eyes shifted, Werewolf’s jaw opened and shut, and the top of Dr. Finkelstein’s skull flipped open to reveal his brain. (Unfortunately, all Jack did was bend a little.)
Hasbro also issued larger, 16-inch dolls of Jack (who came with Zero and who could say five phrases from the film—well, four phrases and one scary laugh) and Sally (with detachable limbs, naturally); a poseable Santa Claus hand puppet (a small rod let a user operate Santa’s arm with her or his non-puppeted hand); and an Oogie Boogie plush toy packed with glow-in-the dark bugs.
Extremely faithful to their onscreen counterparts, Hasbro’s figures are now scarce and highly prized. As I write these words, for instance, a lot of 9 mint, unopened packages (10 of the 12 characters, since one package is the Lock, Shock and Barrel trio) will set you back $250 on eBay.
One wrinkle in the history of Nightmare Before Christmas toys collectors should remember: In the early 2000s, NECA re-released both of Hasbro’s lines in different packaging (and sometimes altering the sculpts). These versions aren’t always cheap on the secondhand market, either. Be sure you buy (and receive) the toys you want!
The NECA Before Christmas
NECA did more than re-release old toys. Between 2004-2007, it brought out six series of its own, 6-inch Nightmare Before Christmas figures. This line saw several characters who’d previously missed a shot at action figure immortality get a second chance, including Vampire, Cyclops, Devil, Mummy-Kid, Wolfman, “Undersea Gal,” “Melting Guy,” an entire corpse family, and the ever-popular Jack in multiple variations (including as the Pumpkin King and in pajamas).
NECA also fanned the flames of Nightmare collecting with a popular line of 7-to-8-inch tall bobble heads (“head knockers”). Subjects included Barrel, Dr. Finkelstein, and several versions, including much smaller and larger sizes, of Jack.
And NECA released some fairly elaborate Nightmare collectibles. The Mayor’s hearse-like car, for example, produced in a limited edition of 1500 units, is beautiful. It was sculpted and painted with fervent attention to detail, from the rust on the sides to the folds of the curtains, from the gas lamps on the tail to the frightened cat-shaped hood ornament. NECA’s deluxe 14-inch Jack Skellington doll was another highlight, boasting 19 points of articulation and 12 interchangeable heads. Such products are clear testaments to the passion this film inspired in its fans.
“A Feast for the Eyes and Imagination”
Meanwhile, that passion was only growing—and not only in the U.S., but abroad.
“They really love that picture in Japan,” composer Danny Elfman told the LA Times in 2015. In fact, some Nightmare products appeared on the Japanese market first, such as Capcom’s video game The Nightmare Before Christmas: Oogie’s Revenge, which the company developed and released in Japan in 2004 before bringing it to the U.S. the next year (with a new subtitle, The Pumpkin King).
Other countries also have ready markets for Nightmare merchandise. For example, Jun Planning (formerly of Japan, now of South Korea) has issued several series of highly detailed, brightly painted PVC “trading figures” and mini-scenes. The history of Nightmare Before Christmas toys and collectibles from Asia could fill several articles all their own.
Overseas or in the States, enthusiasm for The Nightmare Before Christmas has yet to subside. Now, it likely never will. Thanks to home video releases, TV broadcasts, annual 3D theatrical runs from 2006-2009, and a major observance of the movie’s 20th anniversary in 2013, a whole new generation of viewers has embraced the film has a two-holiday classic.
Our Nightmare Before Christmas store offers a host of tricks and treats – or stocking stuffers, if you prefer – that capture the weirdness and whimsy of this landmark movie, now a firm fixture of so many people’s fall and winter celebrations. You can own everything from actual, hand-selected cels from the film, attractively mounted and framed; to poseable 16-inch Jack and Sally dolls (shipped in a bright red coffin, no less); to Jack Skellington floor mats for your car (if your commute isn’t already scary enough!).
In 1993, the late Roger Ebert praised The Nightmare Before Christmas’ as “a feast for the eyes and the imagination.” In action figures, sculptures, games, and more, that feast is still being served. The history of Nightmare Before Christmas toys and collectibles is still being written, with no final chapter in sight.
What Nightmare Before Christmas merch are you hoping Sandy Claws will bring you this year? Share your wish list in the comments below!