“Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems, in a place that perhaps you’ve seen in your dreams; For the story that you are about to be told took place in the holiday worlds of old.
Now you’ve probably wondered where holidays come from. If you haven’t, I’d say it’s time you begun.”
The question “Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween or Christmas film?” is probably old hat by now, but as that time of year draws near, I can’t help but continue to wonder when the most appropriate time is to indulge in this annual right of passage. Even if we asked Burton himself, I doubt we’d come to any kind of unanimous understanding. It is, I believe, entirely subjective. If you’ve never seen the film before (shame on you), this piece of narrative will be as useful to you as a pumpkin on Christmas day. It is the quintessential example of “love it or hate it”. In fact, I will go as far as to forbid you to watch this timeless tale and feel nothing.
Twenty one years on and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas has lost none of it inherent charm. One of the few popularised stop-motion pictures of our time, the animation automatically gains “classic” film status. This aspect of the film, while truly captivating, is purely superficial. What makes the movie a masterpiece is undoubtedly the singular story at the heart of it. It is here where you’d imagine we might be able to ascertain the true categorisation of the film:
Enter Jack Skellington, the protagonist and King of Halloween Town. Adored by his loyal subjects, he struggles to understand why he is unfulfilled. It seems there’s a hollowness that transcends even beyond his physical pumpkin form. This might best be illustrated by his annual attempt to reinvent himself, which provides the memorable opening to the film. Unhappy with his latest transformation, we follow Jack to the outskirts of Halloween Town. As he casually laments in the company of his sidekick Zero (some kind of Ghost dog with a coincidentally bright red nose), he inadvertently stumbles into another seasonal dimension: Christmas Town. Inspired by curiosity and his own personal crisis, he endeavors to make Christmas his own and bring it to Halloween Town. With every best intention, the diabolical plan is doomed from the start. The sleigh is a coffin led by a crew of skeleton reindeer; the presents are wrapped in what only can be assumed to be Beetlejuice’s wallpaper; and the stockings are filled with surprises designed to either scare or ensnare the children of Christmas Town.
While the story largely takes place in Halloween Town, a grim setting consumed by distinct images of darkness and horror, and the majority of characters in our acquaintance are ghosts and ghouls, the underlying message is warm and fuzzy as opposed to being in any way chilling or bleak, thus laying the foundation of an interesting paradox.
In the end, both Christmas and Halloween triumph. Santa Claus makes amends for Jack’s disastrous efforts and secures a Merry Christmas for his people, while the message of Halloween prevails as Jack finally comes to terms with his true calling as Pumpkin King. The final scene depicts this perfectly as we watch the snow fall for the first time on Halloween town and a medley of “This is Halloween” and “What’s This?”, the two most polarising songs of the film, plays. It is perhaps in this ambiguity that the real splendour lies. The film has the ability to cross boundaries and appeal to everyone – or at least almost everyone. Halloween holiday makers and christmas fans alike can indulge in their seasonal preferences and equally fantasize about concepts of Christmas everyday and a perpetual Halloween.
After having just watched it, I feel suitably excited for both occasions and it seems this wasn’t too far off Burton’s intention. The 1982 poem on which the film was based was reportedly inspired by the director having witnessed a store replace their Halloween display with a Christmas one, signifying that once Halloween is complete, we’re already in pursuit of the next “thrill”. His Nightmare Before Christmas grants us rare permission to appreciate and anticipate both events simultaneously and with equal excitement. Burton becomes both our Bogeyman and Santa Claus all wrapped in one.
So, if you’re feeling particularly Halloweenie, I suggest you turn out the lights and treat yourself to the horrors of Halloween Town and it’s inhabitants. The eerie scenery and macabre characters truly put the “eek” in freak. Alternatively, if you’re on the home straight to Christmas, curl up by the fire and indulge in the festive undertones of this delightful feature. The scene in Christmas Town alone will warm the cockles of even the hardest of hearts (just wait until you hear that snow crunch). Or if like Jack, you need an excuse to occasionally escape to another land, do what I do and watch it all year round.