I’m sure I’ve seen The Nightmare Before Christmas at least three or four times in my lifetime, yet it’s never been one of my Christmas movies. I think maybe I seceded it to the goth kids shopping at Hot Topics in high school, and just never bothered to take it back.
So it is that watching The Nightmare Before Christmas as a (semi) adult, it felt almost like the first viewing. In fact, the closest thing I can compare it to is watching Casablanca for the first time and feeling that vague sensation of deja vu even though you know you’ve never actually seen Humphrey Bogart’s face before.
It’s worth it to remember just how revolutionary this movie was when it first came out. In a way, Tim Burton was perverting the claymation magic of Rudolph and Frosty and the other classics of the stilted absurdist medium to make his Halloween-ified Christmas movie. Now it seems almost cliched to see the love interest with her stitched up mouth, and Jack’s elongated skeleton frame dancing through the screen, but back when this movie came out it was pretty new and different.
And yet The Nightmare Before Christmas is really the most classic of holiday movies: one that grapples with the meaning of Christmas, especially since most of us don’t forever live in Christmastowne. It’s protagonist, Jack, is the king of Halloweentown (in a metaphorical sense), a man who has made his fortune and reputation on scares and danger. He becomes obsessed with the glee and happiness he briefly glimpses in Christmastowne and looks to bring it back to the cold dreariness of his Halloween world. Unfortunately, as he attempts to apply the scientific method to the study of Christmas, he horribly misjudges the meaning and attempts to take Christmas and pervert it to the world of perpetual All Hallows Eve.
When Jack realizes his mistake and starts to grasp the true meaning of Christmas, he still has to contend with the evil Oogie Boogie in order to save Christmas. It’s a classic Christmas adventure made all the more moving and intriguing for its imagery of vampires and werewolves (working together? Now that IS Christmas magic!). For Jack, Christmas is ultimately a time for him to exceed the supposed limits of his life and to realize his dreams, as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone else in the process (such as the poor, mistakenly kidnapped Easter Bunny).
A Nightmare Before Christmas is a movie that is simultaneously dated and timeless. The visuals are still pretty impressive (if not quite as unique), but it’s really the stories and the endlessly catchy songs that make it worthwhile.