[Since Halloween is this week, Adam, Perri, and I decided to write a bit about the films we watch annually to celebrate the holiday. Click here for Adam’s pick.]
My memory is a bit hazy, but I’m pretty sure The Nightmare Before Christmas was the first stop-motion animated film I ever saw. I was used to 2D animation and had never seen the work of Ray Harryhausen and his ilk. Then my parents took me to see the film, and Jack Skellington’s sentiments regarding Christmas Town could have easily applied to my feelings about Henry Selick‘s masterpiece. The movie that may not be scary, but it embodies the best aspects of a child’s holiday traditions.
For those who haven’t seen the film (you monsters), it’s about Jack Skellington (speaking voice by Chris Sarandon and singing voice by composer Danny Elfman), the “Pumpkin King” of Halloween Town who has grown tired with the annual celebration. After a night of despondently walking through the woods, he comes across a collection of trees. Each one has a door and the door corresponds to a specific holiday. After stumbling into Christmas Town, Jack is enchanted, and decides to give Santa the year off (unbeknownst to Saint Nick) by taking over and convincing the macabre citizens of Halloween Town to participate. He ultimately discovers that the two holidays don’t mix.
Obviously, it’s a fun juxtaposition to take a ghoulish holiday and mash it up with a gentle one, but they do have similarities. They’re both colorful, both holidays are rooted in pagan traditions, and both are directly primarily at children since they get to have fun by receiving goodies on the same day every year simply by showing up and being adorable.
So why do I qualify The Nightmare Before Christmas as a “Halloween” movie rather than a “Christmas” movie? Wouldn’t the movie work just as well on one holiday as the other? Far be it from me to tell people when they should watch a certain movie at a certain time of year. Granted, the movie came out on October 29th, and when Disney ran annual 3D showings, they would always do it around Halloween. But those are technicalities. Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween movie because its weirdness permeates Christmas, and not vice versa.
Jack Skellington is co-opting a holiday to make it his. He will always be the Pumpkin King, and his suit doesn’t really fit him, which is appropriate since Sally (Catherine O’Hara) is the one who tries to warn him that the plan will be a disaster. The irony is that in Halloween Town, everyone is a “monster”, but Jack is the one who decides to put on a costume. It’s also a costume that no self-respecting trick-or-treater would wear. Companies might try to make Christmas earlier and earlier every year, but I’ve never heard of a child dressing up as Santa Claus (and I say that as someone who dressed up as an IRS auditor one year). It’s funny that Jack doesn’t understand what he’s doing, but it’s also a little sad.
He’s trapped by the confines of his world. Jack bemoans that no matter how good he makes Halloween, he’s “grown so weary of the sound of screams.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with Halloween, and the terrific opening number doesn’t scare but delights. It’s that wonderful balance that only Tim Burton (who came up with the story and produced) could strike where he invites us into his strange imagination that’s off-kilter enough to be unique but never off-putting. A guy with an axe buried in his skull has the funniest line in the movie when he looks at the Easter Bunny and dumbly said, “BUNNY.” Halloween Town isn’t bad and neither are its residents, but Jack’s kingdom has become a prison.
Where The Nightmare Before Christmas excels past its gorgeous animation and enduring soundtrack is how it tries to balance the conflict between Jack “being himself” and reaching for something more. Even though there’s a bit of an action climax where Jack fights Oogie-Boogie (a character I like, but who’s a bit shoehorned in because a kids’ movie needs an antagonist I suppose), the real turning point of the film is the song “Poor Jack”.
In the song, Jack bemoans his decision to try and steal Christmas and then being rejected for not providing the holiday people expected. But he only realizes how special he is and how much more he can offer by stepping away from Halloween and trying something else. It’s not a story about sticking to your strengths, but about creative expansion providing a fresh perspective. Like any creative endeavor that fails, Jack is upset, but he provides a valuable lesson in learning from failure and how it makes us better. “I’ve got some new ideas that will really make them scream! And by God, I’m going to give it all my might!” he shouts. Failing at Christmas hasn’t sent him scurrying back to comfort; it’s inspired him.
That’s the artistry Halloween allows and encourages. At the beginning of the film, as fun and peppy as it is, Jack knows he’s in a rut. It’s the same iconography again and again, which is what we get with Christmas. Christmas is comfort food. But Halloween, while it does have its staples, provides creativity on a level Christmas can’t. Christmas is about family, love, gifts, and putting colorful lights on things. It’s a weird holiday we don’t acknowledge as weird (as Jim Gaffigan points out, a drunk person would put a tree indoors, socks over the fire place, and lights on the outside of a house). But on Halloween, we’re not only encouraged to be different and daring. We celebrate thinking outside the box. And it’s all the better if the box has a shrunken head inside it.
Tomorrow: Perri shares her thoughts on her favorite Halloween film.