Halloween is such a great holiday because it’s a moment of shared celebration without solemnity. It elevates the scary, the creepy and the spooky to remind us, yes, of what scares us, but more importantly, that it’s okay to be afraid. After all, we can’t face our fears if we don’t first see them for what they are. Compared to other holidays, Halloween is a fairly light romp, obligation-wise. No big family gatherings, no massive spending, no forced travel. It’s kind of a big, spiderwebbed costume party that lasts for a night and then we begin the Thanksgiving buildup, which definitely takes a whole month to prepare for mentally. Sure, this is an American view of things but if there is something the rest of the world could use more of, it’s Halloween. Which is kind of the point of Tim Burton’s stop-motion musical masterpiece, The Nightmare Before Christmas.
The story takes place in the mythical location of Halloweentown, where all of the ghosts and goblins who haunt the world on October 31 live for the other 364 days of the year. And chief of them all is Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, who leads the charge each year to go out and scare the world’s boys and girls. Jack is really, really good at what he does, and his fellow townsfolk love him for it. But one can only be at the top of their game for so long before things get boring, and Jack could use a new challenge. That’s when he discovers a magical grove of trees that offer passage to the other holiday towns of the year, and he stumbles into Christmastown, which totally blows his mind by what he sees there. Inspired and re-invigorated, Jack is so taken with Christmas that he helps himself to the holiday by kidnaping “Sandy Claws” and taking on the jolly old elf’s roles and responsibilities: presents, the sleigh, the works. But a plan this misguided can only go sideways, and Jack and his friends soon begin to understand exactly why Halloweentown isn’t really set up for Christmas, and that not everyone is content to merely sideline the Kringle for a holiday. Some of them wouldn’t mind ending the fat man’s career permanently.
The Nightmare Before Christmas certainly isn’t the first movie to explore the notion of a confused outsider nearly wrecking a beloved season of holiday cheer. But it is a ferociously original take on a world where holidays each occupy their unique universes, and what happens when we mash up our different reasons for celebrating different things in different ways. And it pulls off the rare feat of making us care for two different holidays at the same time without taking any from either of them. It’s the kind of thing that reminds us that maybe giving somebody a creepy present for Halloween could be a cool thing to do, and that maybe the old traditions of holiday ghost stories and the Krampus deserve more attention than we tend to give them.
This movie features Tim Burton at the height of his considerable powers, drawing upon his love for the weird and the macabre and doing the impossible: infusing them into the kind of entertainment he honed his skills on when working at Disney. The result is something that is both gothic and ghastly, whimsical and wondrous. Burton is clearly operating on his own wavelength here, and brings us all into a world that nobody else could ever have imagined. But it’s one that we might believe has always lurked somewhere just past the corners of our eyes.
The movie also features the music of Danny Elfman, whose virtuoso work in scoring this unexpected musical (as well as lending his voice talents to the singing Jack) is Exhibit A for why Elfman and Burton have worked so well together for so many years. Elfman is Burton’s musical equivalent, and even though Elfman has done a wonderful job scoring many shows and movies across Hollywood, never does it come to life more than when it’s providing the soundscape for whatever madness Burton has cooked up next. But here, in Nightmare, musical numbers like “This is Halloween,” “What’s This?,” “Kidnap the Sandy Claws,” and “Oogie Boogie’s Song” go one step further. They become the enchanting, off-kilter soundtrack for an entire holiday, and we are all that much better for it.
Strangely, the story of Nightmare seems to play distant fiddle to its music, its aesthetic, its setting, and its cast of oddball characters. Sure, we delight in the antics of Jack trying to convince his colleagues in horror that they should be delivering presents to kids instead of scares. Likewise, we enjoy watching Jack’s misadventures on the world’s rooftops and even when Halloween town’s darker denizens decide to take things too far and remind people why their currency is fear rather than joy. But the contest is never really in doubt—as formidable as the Oogie Boogie may be as a bad guy, we know in our hearts that this movie really isn’t going to deep six Santa Claus or cancel Christmas. So the fun we get is in knowing that it’s all going to reverse itself and wondering what will come of it then.
And that’s where the moment of truth kicks in. We have already seen Jack’s stint as Santa Claus go horribly wrong, and all he does is scare the very kids he wants to send Christmas cheer. But along the way, he rekindles his own love for frightening little ones, and realizes he must rescue Santa from the Oogie Boogie. And for all of the humiliation he suffers, what does Santa do at the end of it all? Gives Jack a chance to make things right. Because the Kringle knows better than anyone: it’s not about how much you give. It’s about giving what you have.