Christmas: The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

At this point, I think it’s safe to call The Nightmare Before Christmas a holiday classic. It isn’t perfect, but classics don’t need to be perfect. They just need to be influential and memorable—those movies we return to over and over because they have something charming and alive about them. For example, Ghostbusters may not be a great film, but it’s certainly a comedy classic. There are better holiday films than The Nightmare Before Christmas, but there are few animated examples that enjoy as assured a spot in people’s holiday rotations.

The story of Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, and his disastrous attempts to take over the duties of Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, The Nightmare Before Christmas is gothic and superficially off-kilter. It’s quintessential Burton in his style, and I’ve come to admit that’s not a bad thing. Thing is, I used to think Tim Burton was a hack, but I’ve now changed my opinion. I think he’s become a hack but his early work had charm. The Nightmare Before Christmas is an example of how delightful his early work could be. Still, though credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas’s inception and style have to rest with Burton, the real kudos for the film belongs to Henry Selick and Danny Elfman.

Selick, that indelible perfectionist in stop motion animation brings his typical attention to detail here. The gothic designs may reek of Burton but the precision with which they’re crafted is thanks to Selick. On the music side, Elfman is one of the most interesting composers in Hollywood, and has been for the past 25 years. Since The Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical, it makes sense the film is most alive when the characters are singing. In particular, “What’s This?” which takes place when Jack discovers Christmas Town, is full of unbridled joy. Jack’s amazement at the happiness of Christmas and the beauty of snow (brought to wonderful life by Elfman, who provides Jack’s singing voice) speaks to the optimism of the character. He’s taken aback at how there can exist a place that thrives off of uncomplicated happiness.

This plays into how childlike Jack is. Like a curious, but misguided child, Jack discovers and tries to understand Christmas to the best of his ability. He’s confused and wrong about a great number of things, but his naïve optimism, his desire to spread joy instead of the usual terror of Halloween is admirable and pure. If the old saying that the intention behind a gift is more important than the gift itself, then it shouldn’t matter that Jack is giving horrifying approximations of toys instead of actual toys as gifts. He is hoping to bring happiness to people and even let Santa off easy by taking over his job for him. It plays into the subtextual cynicism of the movie that none of the humans can understand Jack’s intensions. They only understand the gifts he brings, and the gifts are terrifying, so they hate him. The result is Jack Skellington being adorably optimistic, but also pathetic in his naivety.

Unfortunately, the film makes a huge thematic misstep in its resolution. By having Jack Skellington re-embrace his role as King of Halloween and flourish in that role, the film is essentially saying that people need to stick to the roles society gives them. The characters who thought Jack was foolish from the get-go for pursuing something other than his appointed role are lauded at film’s end. The end lesson of The Nightmare Before Christmas is Jack shouldn’t have attempted to be something other than what he was. It’s a predictably conventional attitude, typical of Christmas movies, but for a film with some interesting thoughts on what makes holidays special, it’s sadly reductive in its take on individual freedom.

Jack Skellington is a delightful character and that he fails in his dream to be something more than he was born to be is sad. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a rousing musical and an inventive feat of design, but that it celebrates its hero’s failure is unfortunate. It keeps it from being more than a vehicle for a fantastically ambitious character. Jack Skellington is a great character. The Nightmare Before Christmas will have to suffice with merely being a good film.

7 out of 10

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993, USA)

Directed by Henry Selick; written by Caroline Thompson from an adaptation by Michael McDowell of Tim Burton's original story; featuring the voicework of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Ruebens, and Ken Page.