When The Nightmare Before Christmas was first released in 1993, I recall a reviewer saying, “This is the kind of story Dr. Seuss would have written if he had grown up on heavy metal and horror films.” I must say that I agree. I’m not exactly sure what music Tim Burton (who authored the story on which this stop-and-go animated musical feature is based) grew up on, but I know that he is a huge fan of horror film actor Vincent Price. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that the many Price films Burton watched as a child helped shape his macabre sensibilities and laid the groundwork for Nightmare. The movie tells the story of a loveable freak named Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king and the brains behind the holiday we know as Halloween.
Burton knows a thing or two about loveable freaks his movies are full of them. From Batman to Edward Scissorhands, his films are populated with folks trying to live in a world that can neither understand nor accept their quirks. Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman, is the poor little rich boy who lives in seclusion following the brutal murder of his parents. Night after night, he dons a rubber suit and enacts his own brand of non-lethal vigilantism against the evils of society. Edward Scissorhands, the oddball creation of an eccentric scientist (played by none other than Vincent Price), stumbles into an initially welcoming suburbia, but is eventually cast out when the neighbors begin to view his obvious difference from them as harmful. The rest of Burton’s characters follow suit James (of Giant Peach fame), enters a fantasy world of talking bugs and one enormous piece of fruit in order to escape the verbal abuse he suffers at home. And of course, Pee Wee Herman is the nerdy man/boy who travels cross-country to recover his stolen bike (in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure) and discovers that the outside world is much stranger than he is.
Jack Skellington fits nicely into Burton’s stable of misunderstood protagonists, though his situation differs from that of Batman and Edward Scissorhands. Jack resides in Halloween Town, where it is the sole purpose of every citizen witch, vampire, zombie, or werewolf to deliver Halloween every year. Jack is in charge of the festivities, but has grown tired of all the same old scares, which he makes clear in a musical lament: “I would give it all up if I only could.” But Jack knows it is his duty to create terror and mayhem every October, again and again, and again. He doesn’t have a choice in the matter.
Jack’s restlessness initiates a chain of events that leads to his discovery of Christmas Town, as well as his eventual kidnapping of Santa Claus and attempt to take his place. The results are predictably disastrous, as the horrors of Halloween are mixed unevenly with the joys of Christmas: Jack, as Santa, delivers shrunken heads, large snakes, goblins, and other frightful things to the children of the world, and is eventually shot down (in his coffin-sleigh) by the military. The real Santa is left to fix Christmas, as Jack realizes that all he really wants and needs to be is the best pumpkin king in the world.
Jack’s ultimate epiphany is in keeping with the themes that usually apply to Burton’s benevolent losers. We feel sorry for Jack, sympathize with his plight, and gain a better understanding of his personality, but we inevitably realize that there’s nothing that can be done to change who he is or how the world looks at him, just as Jack realizes this. It might sound like a defeatist philosophy to suggest that Jack is something of a victim, powerless to affect his destiny, but Burton’s fables are typically bittersweet like this. Like Edward and Ed Wood (played by Johnny Depp in Burton’s Ed Wood), Jack Skellington comes to terms with who he is and learns to accept his freakish fate.