Welcome to The Twelve Ways of Christmas, where we discuss holiday films you’ve already seen or never plan on watching. And why not, right? Every other damn movie site’s doing it, and since when does giving in to peer pressure put you on the naughty list?
With little rhyme or reason, check in from now until The Day That Must Not Be Named for a new entry. And Happy Kwanzaa.
Christmas and Halloween are, respectively, America’s first and second most commercialized holidays, owed in part to the sheer mountain of decorations either demands. From fake spiderwebs and wreaths to carved pumpkins and decorative strings of plastic lights, it’s generally stuff my father would refer to as “crap.” On grumpier years, you might even catch him grumbling a few words for why the Christmas tree was too much of a pain to bother with. Yet for all the stress that comes with decorations, their aesthetic potency has remained timeless, and it’s that aesthetic potency that’s at the core of the debate over Henry Selick’s 1993 debut. Either a Halloween film wrapped in yuletide trappings or a deranged Christmas tale decorated in macabre garb, The Nightmare Before Christmas begs its viewers for a classification: Just what kind of movie is this?
Admittedly, the mashup takes some getting used to. Halloween Town’s covered in an ashy brown, with tree limbs curling like overgrown fingernails under the omnipresent full moon light. Everything in Halloween Town looks like it’s drying, but Selick tops these ghoulish confections with musical delights. In Halloween Town’s introductory number, the town’s vampires and werewolves emerge from crypts and rundown houses to bleat a declarative “This is Halloween!” capping a celebration on the town’s sole holiday. The booming heart throbs ache and jangle against the bony clangs of rattling xylophones, adding offbeat liveliness to so much death.
All of this is merely lead in to introducing Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon, sung by Danny Elfman), Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. With lanky appendages and a permagrin slapped on his sunken-eyed face, Skellington doesn’t seem like the “Christmas” type, but something’s missing this year. He’s removed from the festivities. He doesn’t even stay for the annual awards (although what are the chances the vampires don’t win “Most Blood Drained in a 24-Hour Period?” Year after year of being inundated with Halloween successes, Jack’s looking for a change, to move on to bigger and better things. So when a soul-searching walk in the woods leads him to a ring of doors, each corresponding to its own holiday realm, Jack finds himself overtaken with curiosity over the door with the funny, pointy tree. In he jumps, arriving on the snowy outskirts of Christmas Town — populated by elves, run by Santa, and covered in rosy holiday cheer.
To the credit of Selick, writers Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson, and producer Tim Burton, Christmas Town’s depiction is wholeheartedly earnest, a more idealized setting than later cynical Selick/Burton collaborations would offer. Shop windows glow with a supernaturally warm yellow, and the fresh cover of snow seems more “new” than cold to Jack’s sensations. As out-of-place as Nightmare’s “Dickens Village” might seem, Selick uses Jack’s surprise as an avenue for unfettered wonder for the holiday season, returning to Halloween Town to calculate the essence of his new obsession. His plan? Assume Santa’s annual responsibilities and bring Christmas to Halloween Town for once. Jack’s town proposal, however, is met with a macabre one-upsmanship. Beyond the shiny tree, the frankendogs, vampires, and ghosts only seem in interested in the purpose of stockings and gift-giving so long as there’s a gruesome element lurked behind the mistletoe. ‘Here’s a Christmas stocking, everyone!’ ‘Okay. What’s messed up about it?’ Like it or not, when Jack abducts Santa and dons his own raggedy beard, he’s not bringing Christmas to Halloween Town; he’s bringing Halloween Town to Christmas.
That Nightmare Before Christmas is aggressive enough in dampening holiday spirit gives some credence to parental concerns. It also explains why, 20 years ago, Disney was “terrified and a little embarrassed” by the film. With the perpetually limbless Sally (Catherine O’Hara) and devilish menace in Oogie Boogie (Ken Page, relishing in everything), Halloween Town is creepy enough; skeletal reindeer and gift-wrapped shrunken heads ain’t exactly the stuff of sugar plum visions. It’s why Jack’s usurping of Christmas, whatever his intentions, eventually crumbles to reality. Scaring’s for Halloween Town, so leave Christmas to Santa. It’s wonderfully distilled in a final exchange between the two figureheads, as Jack wonders aloud if there’s still enough Christmas Eve left to salvage the holiday. “Enough time to fix Christmas?” Santa scoffs. “Of course there is. I’m Santa Claus.”
For a film seemingly so subversive in playing with conventions, there’s a strange restoration of the status quo by Nightmare’s end. A cute romance gift wraps Jack’s emotional through line, realizing the hole he was feeling needn’t be filled by a new project but rather the comforts of Sally, someone in Halloween Town who’s beyond an annual obsession with two-dimensional scares. Jack’s restlessness dissipates almost as swiftly as the tears of his traumatized tikes, whose Halloween Town gifts of snakes and demonic dolls are swapped for baseball bats and puppies. Considering the promise of Selick’s aesthetic shuffling though, the restorative sequences are a tad disappointing.
Rather than answer that initial question — Is this a holiday or Halloween movie? — a better question might posit whether it matters either way. Even as instigator of this stop-motion foray, Selick ultimately implies some things had best remain separated.