You should listen to “This Is Halloween” as you read, just to set the mood
[pullquote_left]Everyone Hail to the Pumpkin Song”[/pullquote_left]
This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the much beloved film, “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” hatched from the wonderfully twisted mind of the cult favorite filmmaker Tim Burton. Burton conceived the premise while working as an animator for Disney, and wrote it in a poem of the same name. This poem was then adapted by Walt Disney Feature Animation and distributed by Disney’s Touchstone Pictures (because it was thought to be too scary for the main Disney brand). It is considered a master class for depicting the innovative storytelling techniques that only a film can provide, and has lived on to today as both a critical darling and a touchstone for teens in their Hot-Topic phase to feel inspired by.
The film makes astounding use of the classic stop-motion animation technique, stitching together latex covered miniatures of each character in a different pose for every single 1/24th of a second frame. This painstaking work comes together to bring a fluid, surreal and beautiful visual experience that take full advantage of real lighting and material, bringing a simultaneously realistic yet fantastical world to the screen. The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favorite films and inspired my creativity many a time, not to mention frightening the heck out of me. I recently rewatched the film after the life kept getting in the way of my reacquainting myself with it, and I will say that watching it in High Definition inspired the same child-like wonder I remember feeling the first time I laid eyes upon it. The film still holds up tremendously well, and has many deeper meanings than its children’s movie moniker would belie.
The story begins with an introduction to Halloweentown, a grim and nasty place where goblins, vampires, werewolves and all manner of creepy crawlies live between their annual fright fest of All-Hallows Eve. The song guiding us through, “This is Halloween” is an instant classic, creating a sense of place, developing the rules of Halloweentown, the tone of the film, and giving us our first glimpse of The Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington. Jack is the best scarer in Halloweentown and is praised endlessly by the denizens for his ability. He puts on a thankful exterior but we quickly learn that he is not as excited by the allure of next Halloween as they are. He has grown tired of doing the same thing every year, and it has become a chore to him. He has a long Shakespearean soliloquy explaining his strife, and his desire to break the mold.
Jack wanders through the forest and eventually runs into a nexus of entrances to all of the different holiday towns. He is enamored by the door shaped like a Christmas tree and this leads him to a magical place full of snow, lights, and laughter. Jack is inspired by the change of pace he finds there and is enthralled by all the new things there are too see. He does not understand them, since he has never known anything other than his life as the Pumpkin King. Jack is determined to bring this new knowledge to his home, and returns to Halloweentown with souvenirs of his adventures to show his peers.
“What’s This?” is Jack’s impression of what he sees in Christmastown
He is inspired to recreate the sense of wonder he discovered, holding up in his room to literally study the meaning of Christmas, engaging in a series of scientific experiments. After many a night dissecting teddy bears, analyzing holly berries, memorizing Christmas carols, trying to decipher the mystery all while saying “What does is mean!?”, he comes to the misguided conclusion that they will be throwing Christmas this year. Jack sends mischievous trick-or-treaters Lock, Shock, and Barrel to kidnap “Sandy Claws”, which after a mistakenly capturing the Easter Bunny, get Santa and leave him incapacitated while Jack assures him it is like a vacation for him, he will take care of everything this year.
All resources are transformed to develop creepy demonic manifestations of the toys Jack saw in Christmastown. Jack sets off in a coffin-turned sleigh and delivers them to the waiting children, creating terrifying scenes of dolls come alive chasing with knives and wreathes turned to snakes horrifying children. Jack hears the screams and assumes they will thank him for the great job he has done. In reality, the overflow of 911 calls prompts the military to pummel the sky with artillery, shooting him down and leaving him lamenting in a cemetery, wondering, “What have I done?”. He comes to the realization that his trials have re-exhilarated his interest in doing what he does best, after failing at being something he was not. Jack comes back to Halloweentown just in time to save Santa from the mad Oogie Boogie( aka The Boogie Man) and put him back into commission to save the rest of Christmas eve. Jack happily begins to plan for next Halloween with his new appreciation for doing what he loves.
Sally’s story also runs parallel to Jack’s adventure, highlighting her struggle to find her freedom from the horrible Dr. Finkelstein. They seem to have a strange Father-Daughter relationship, being her creator from amputated parts and he is unwilling to let her live a life outside of serving him. She escapes his prying eyes by poisoning the doctor’s soup with deadly nightshade, and escapes to see the world. She overhears Jack’s song and falls for him. After Jack returns and is trying to set up the Christmas festivities, she is the only one with any good sense to stop Jack, as she had a premonition of its impending disaster from a Forget-Me-Not flower. Once Christmas Eve rolls around, Sally tries to impede Jack’s flight with fog juice, but the plan fails, and hearing of Jack getting shot down she decides to try to save Santa Claus. She gets captured and Jack finally arrives to save them, later they talk on Spiral Hill and express their feelings for each other and swear they were meant to be together. Sally is a headstrong and independent female and takes it upon herself to escape her entrapment by the doctor. It is interesting to see her as the only one with enough good sense to see the error in Jack’s ways, and helps to save Santa later on. I was always glad she was not simply relegated to being a love interest for Jack, and it one of the main driving forces for the plot, something we can never get enough of in fiction.
There are some allusions to Judeo-Christian mythology throughout the story, as they were obviously an inspiration for the trials Jack encounters throughout his journey. Jack is disillusioned by life, and goes looking for deeper meaning, finding it in a new place he can hardly explain (like an angel coming to him). He tries to articulate the wonders he saw in a sermon to his people (like a prophet), and then goes through a period of intense questioning what he knows. He experienced something bigger than himself that is completely new to him, and everything else seems insignificant until he discovers their true meaning. But, he also counters this existential soul-searching with intense studies of the scientific method, in an attempt to demystify the challenges to his logic. This sequence seems to underpin the idea that in order to discover who you truly are, you need to use every resource available to you and make up your own mind.
The story is a classic tale of envy, boredom, and trying to change your life by pretending to be someone else. Jack is worshiped and admired for his outrageous talent, but feels unfulfilled by all the praise. Jack’s trials can be interpreted as a critique of the artist’s experience, and Burton most likely drew from his own life. After a while, any artist finds themselves walking through the forest, as it were, hanging your head in search for something new, something to shake you up and challenge you. This feeling needn’t be reserved for artists, but for anyone searching for meaning, for a feeling that makes you more alive. Burton’s film is a commentary on how our culture robs symbols of their true meaning and mashes them together until they serve as a totally different purpose altogether, a deeply current issue that plagues our current instant gratification society. It is and always has been one of my all-time favorite films: creepy, malevolent, disturbing. But in the same token it is satisfyingly hopeful and optimistic that no matter what journey you end up on in life, every bump on the way puts you one step closer to knowing who you truly are.