I have organized my own collections of movies (overall favorites, black-and-white favorites, Christmas movies, Halloween movies, etc) and each year I face a very fun dilemma: is Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie? Should I watch it during October or during December? It is obviously filled with all the horrific characters of Halloween Town, but it also sings the praises and wonders of Christmas and Santa Claus! What do I do?
The movie opens with a montage of Halloween characters—ghosts, ghouls, vampires, witches, and monsters—singing about the frights of Halloween. They congratulate themselves at having completed another successfully scary Halloween. Enter Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King in charge each year of the Halloween celebration…he is excellent at his calling; “There are few who'd deny, at what I do I am the best/ For my talents are renowned far and wide,” he sings.
But, Jack is plagued with the existential question…“Is that all there is?” He is no longer satisfied with being the Pumpkin King and yearns for something new, something more. In one of my favorite songs, “Jack’s Lament,” he complains,
Yet year after year, it's the same routine
And I grow so weary of the sound of screams
And I, Jack, the Pumpkin King
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.
Lost in thought, Jack literally stumbles into Christmas Town and quickly comes to believe that Christmas can fill the emptiness that grows inside his bones. He realizes, “In my bones I feel the warmth that’s coming from inside.” He returns to Halloween Town, inspired to re-invent Christmas…despite not fully understanding it: he thinks that Sandy Claws is in charge of Christmas and that he can “set out to slay with my rain gear on.” He struggles heroically to understand Christmas…but as we all know, tragedy awaits any character who steps away from his destiny!
The next montage, and the next 20 minutes of movie, is about “Making Christmas” with a distinctly Halloween flavor. Jack, dressed as Santa Claus and flying in a casket-turned-sleigh pulled by skeletal reindeer, sets out to find his new sense of fulfillment. Of course, Jack doesn’t succeed because the two holidays are each distinctly unique and can’t be combined. The horrors of Halloween terrify everyone on Christmas morning.
But the dilemma continues…is it about Halloween or Christmas?
Typically, Tim Burton—the movie’s producer and writer—tells the story romantically…Jack is pursued, helped, warned, and loved by Sally, a Frankenstein-like character created by Dr. Finkelstein. She is innocent but insightful, compassionate but vulnerable, clever, brave…and in love with Jack. Sally is the only sane character in Halloween Town…even the real Santa, after Sally and Jack save him, says, “I’d listen to her! She's the only one who makes any sense around this insane asylum!” Of course, Jack has to go through his existential trial before he comes to recognize what’s right in front of him: the redemptive power of Sally’s love. If you’re jaded and modern, you may reject the idea; but if you’re a romantic, Sally saves Jack’s life.
My dilemma is resolved, because it really doesn’t matter when I watch this movie...October or December: the characters are loveable, the music is delightful, the visuals are fantastical, the stop-action is fascinating, and it combines two wonderful holidays. Nightmare Before Christmas is a dream of a movie.