Viking Night: Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas
By Bruce Hall
November 1, 2017
I know you can’t see me but if you could, you would probably NOT say “Yeah, whimsical stop-motion animated musicals are probably his jam.”
Because they’re not.
I can’t explain why. I love animation, I love Tim Burton (who actually did NOT direct this movie), I love art and music, and I definitely love Halloween. But somehow, I’ve managed to never see even five minutes of The Nightmare Before Christmas. Most of my friends don’t even know this about me. Maybe I’ve been keeping it hidden for fear of the ridicule. I have, after all, personally mocked people for not having seen universally loved classics like The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars or The Ice Pirates.
That’s right - I’ve been in the closet, so to speak, regarding The Nightmare Before Christmas. Not anymore. Tonight, I’m casting aside my fear and taking the plunge.
Dear God...seven minutes in and already I’ve had to listen to three fucking songs. This is going to be a long 76 minutes...is what I was thinking at first. But The Nightmare Before Christmas is actually a terrific idea and a terrific film. It’s a contemporary classic, as deserving of its iconic status as The Wizard of Oz. Or Star Wars.
Or The Ice Pirates.
You see, there is a magical realm called Halloween Town, devoted entirely to the coolest old-school Celtic holiday of all time. Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon) is King of the Realm, a spindly looking skeleton-man in a pin-striped coat of tails. He relishes instilling terror into the hearts of the innocent every Halloween, and claims to be the world’s preeminent authority on the matter. Halloween Town is a grey, ghoulish physical incarnation of the holiday itself. Every citizen is dead, dying, or some kind of hellish half-sentient inanimate object suspended between life and death. And they ALL can sing. It’s like whatever Ozzy Osbourne dreams about every night crossed with Sesame Street.
As much fun as I’m sure this sounds to you, Jack has grown bored with it. After what I can only assume has been hundreds of years walking around in the same outfit with no skin or functioning organs, Jack is ready for a change. He frets about it openly, wandering the spooky clay forest with his ghost dog Zero, crooning his complaints to the stars. This catches the attention of Sally (Catherine O’Hara), a whimsical enchanted rag-doll who yearns to be more than the sum of her stuffing.
Jack eventually stumbles upon seven mystical portals that lead to other, similar worlds that are also devoted to Western holidays. Naturally he stumbles into Christmas Town, and is spellbound by what he sees. Christmas, as we all know, is like Halloween squared. It’s turned up to eleven, commercialized, colorized and infused with generations of religious urgency.
Plus, it’s the only holiday that benefits even those who don’t participate. It’s a win-win; the Las Vegas of cultural institutions.
Because he’s incurably curious, Jack embarks on an ambitious quest to learn everything he can about Christmas. Because he’s also slightly evil, he concludes that the residents of Halloween Town will appropriate the rival holiday, and he will personally take over for the man he mistakenly refers to as “Santa Claws”.
That’s one of the most interesting things about The Nightmare Before Christmas. One of its central themes involves the way all of us, with no other frame of reference, tend to compare all new information with what we already know. It’s only natural of course, but it means we all come with a sometimes dangerous built-in set of prejudices and entitlements. It’s entirely possible that one of the best remedies for this is to occasionally give selflessly to others, forcing you to put yourself in their place.
This is, of course (supposed to be), the Meaning of Christmas.
Jack can’t see this. His vision of Christmas is a joyous act of sabotage akin to something Andy Warhol and Andy Kaufman might have come up with after a three day binge of mescaline and Netflix. It’s all obvious to Sally, who is secretly crushing on the self-proclaimed Pumpkin King.
The film’s other big plot thread is devoted to reconciling this, mostly through musical numbers.
Yes, I’m impatient with story exposition through song. I don’t know why. It’s always been like that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate what a work of art this film is in every respect, especially musically. This is already a better morality tale than most other holiday themed films, but it’s also a lovingly crafted masterpiece whose timeless aesthetic has since become an industry unto itself. The songs are spirited and entertaining, and the relative novelty of the animation style brings the accompanying choreography together in a unique and timeless way.
Also, watching Jack sincerely deliver a severed head as a child’s Christmas gift is something you’ll want to relive again and again. Stop-motion animation lends itself to realistic looking movement, resulting in a characteristically surreal vibe. This gives it leave to be as eccentric and macabre as it wants to be without sacrificing any of its charm.
At one point, Sally totally sews herself back together Rambo-style after subjecting herself to a great risk. It’s meant to symbolize her strength and resourcefulness yes, but if you stop and think in a real-world context you might shudder a bit. She’s a plucky half-dead girl in a plucky film made by plucky people who truly loved their work, and it shows.
Interestingly, the story is set in motion by one man’s boredom with tradition. So if you’ve ever felt tired of the same old Halloween or the same old Christmas, you won’t mind me saying that the Nightmare Before Christmas is proof that new things can be added to cherished institutions without sacrificing a damn thing.
In fact in my opinion, it’s an improvement to BOTH holidays.