The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) was one of the least successful Disney movies ever made, although it was eventually released through Touchstone Pictures after being deemed too scary and threatening for a mainline children’s Disney movie. In the box office, it made about 1/10th of what Aladdin made. If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably because it was re-released by Disney in 2006 and popularised during the emo scene, as its songs were covered in an album by Fall Out Boy, Marilyn Manson, Panic! At the Disco, and others. Subsequently, it’s often thought of as a movie for people trying to be edgy (and who haven’t fully let go of 2006…).
If nothing else, it’s unlike any other Christmas movie. At one point the protagonist Jack Skellington powers Christmas fairy lights with an electric chair. The music and lyrics were written by Danny Elfman, chosen by Tim Burton because of Burton’s appreciation for Elfman’s twisted new-wave band Oingo Boingo, an act that was by no means writing music for children. Subsequently, viewers were presented with a kid’s movie in which there are multiple songs about the kidnap or cooking alive of Santa Claus. The protagonist is a Byronic hero, the skeleton king of Halloween Town, and although my English tutors might be disappointed, I still appreciate his balladic soliloquies almost as much as I appreciate Hamlet’s. After all, one of his claims to fame is ‘since I am dead I can take off my head to recite Shakespearean quotations.’
So a monologuing skeleton man gets wanderlust after years of stasis of only ever managing Halloween and steals Christmas to run, more in search for an intellectual challenge than anything else. This is one of the factors that sets it apart from other Christmas movies – it’s framed in terms of a fundamental dissatisfaction with holiday tradition being routinely accepted. Jack Skellington does not want to keep doing Halloween just for the sake of it, and the moral of the movie is certainly not something about the holiday spirit. After an Icarus moment of being shot out of the sky by surface-to-air missiles while delivering Christmas presents (yes, this does happen), Jack sings about wanting to create a Christmas more memorable and greater than any which has come before. The purpose of a holiday is not to go through yearly cycles of going through the same ritualistic tradition every year. The purpose of a holiday is a successful act of escapist transportation into another world. By abandoning routine, stumbling into the Christmas world, and obsessively putting everything into stealing Christmas for himself, Jack Skellington is doing exactly what we should do with a holiday: letting its lore and atmosphere inspire us as a break from the mundanity of our own lives.
There are several Christmas movies that confuse me as to why they are even ‘Christmas movies.’ Heckle me in the comments section, but I’ve always found people excusing Love Actually’s content on the grounds of it being a Christmas tradition a little disturbing. The uncomfortable nature of glamourising cheating in Alan Rickman and Keira Knightley’s sections, men abusing their power dynamics over women who are literally their servants and can’t even talk back in Hugh Grant and Colin Firth’s segments. There are so many movies that just present a romance with the backdrop of Christmas, just making us bitter single people feel even more bitter during the holidays as the shared cultural experience creates a pressure to try and find love over the winter.
Most Christmas movies end up presenting the themes of family, sharing, or love, even though these are values that we should really hold up at all times of year. The Nightmare Before Christmas shows that it is fine to find a holiday dull, or to question the purpose of repeating it every year, but suggests that a holiday can be a magical break from life if you make it your own and interpret it in a personal manner. It has a soundtrack to rival any other musical, a very dark tone, and a message about holidays unique amongst other Christmas movies. If you’re going to watch one new Christmas movie this holiday, make it this one.