‘Tis the Christmas season! Lights are being strung up in cities, Santas stand on corners ringing bells, songs about love and joy fill the air, people preach about holiday cheer and the spirit of giving, peace suffuses the air or at least that’s what we’re supposed to focus on. It all makes me throw up in my mouth just a little bit.
The things that I see about the Christmas season in addition to what’s put forward: credit card debt, hearing lecherous men making jokes about sitting on their laps, people killing and hurting others for the latest toy or gadget, money and commercialism slowly becoming more and more important that anything else and worst of all the songs that you hear everywhere and get stuck in your brain until you want to slam it up against the brick wall. It’s not that I hate Christmas, I just hate the pretending that goes along with it, the falseness of acting as if everything is hunky-dory. So it’s safe to say my choice of film is not going to be It’s A Wonderful Life. Every year when this season roles around once again I pop in my favorite Christmas movie: The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Now if you haven’t seen the 1993 classic claymation musical either in its initial release, or it’s yearly Halloween theatrical release since or it’s 3-D re-release a couple of years ago let me give you the gist of it: Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween and scaring people and, where he lives (Halloween Town), that means a lot. Halloweentown is filled with monsters of all sort that live for Halloween and scaring people. But Jack, who is best of them all, is bored with it. He doesn’t feel it challenges him any longer. Meanwhile another resident of the town, Sally the ragdoll, is being held against her will by her creator the Mad Scientist. She’s secretly fallen in love with Jack from afar.
This may all seem like more of a Halloween enterprise than anything to do with Christmas, and that’s true — up until the point where Jack finds a portal while wandering in the woods that leads him to a new world: Christmas Town. Darkly funny shenanigans then occur, including the kidnapping and torture of Santa Claus (or, Sandy Claws, as the residents of Halloweentown call him).
Obviously I’m not the only one who loves this movie, going by the large profit it made, the excellent reviews it received and the constant re-releases. Still, the question remains, why is it so popular? It’s easy to say it’s all about the dark visuals and the “emo” feel of the film, but I think it’s so much more. Some of it is timing — released in the 90’s, a decade when the sanctity of Christmas and its many shopping days began to take on a much more manic quality. People waiting outside stores in bitterly cold weather for Power Ranger action figures, mauling each other for Tickle Me Elmos, and the whole time still talking about peace, joy and happiness.
There’s a hypocrisy there that I think many of my generation were very much aware of, which lead to a bitter cynicism about the world which many of us internalized (and I’m not saying I’m any different). Carrying that makes it hard to imagine the holiday season as all about good tidings. Especially when your mother comes home bruised because she was fighting for a doll on sale for $19.99. Plopping down on the couch to catch A Christmas Carol just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was a film that spoke to that sense of the holiday; if not directly or in moral, in it’s production value alone. It was not a joyful and cheery Christmas tale, and it doesn’t even have the melancholy associated with the trite redemptive Christmas tale. The washed out colors and dark humor pointed to something we could connect to, a way to think about Christmas that didn’t involve putting on a happy face and faking it. There’s also the fact that it positioned the Halloweentown citizens as the protagonists — the normal ones we’re meant to identify with — and the Christmastown citizens as the odd ones. For so many of us who were constantly being admonished to “get into the spirit” it was entertaining and empowering to see the shiny, happy people around us presented as the freaks in this scenario.
That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have problematic elements. The character of Oogie Boogie one of the few characters actually painted as truly evil within the film has been criticized for being a stereotype of African-Americans. The criticism is focused on the fact that Oogie speaks in what some critics have called “blackspeak”, meaning that the way he uses language and his turns of phrases are very much associated with African-Americans. Being the only character who speaks such a way and also one of the true villains in the piece makes it a serious issue. It seems meant to call on societal emphasis on a supposed connection between black men and crime. When I come across a film that I love with problematic elements I usually deconstruct the character/scene, critique it, and do my best to make others aware of the issues. When it comes time to watch the film I fast forward through all the offending scenes.
Despite Oogie Boogie and the way he offends, the movie still speaks to me. It touches on my cynicism around Christmas and my suspicions about all the people with huge smiles wandering the streets.
But does the movie itself truly break any holiday film conventions? Debatable. The message is in sorts still a very “Disneyesque” Christmas message — be true to yourself. The difference comes in the fact that in this case it is those who would normally be considered monsters or freaks that receive that message. It says to us all that we don’t have to change, we don’t have to “get into the spirit” of Christmas.
It’s a story about someone trying to fit into the Christmas feeling, trying to assimilate into a whole different way of being and the fact that it won’t work. It’s not, like so many holiday movies, about finding the Christmas joy within or melting someones heart with kindness or becoming a better person. It’s about having a core of your being that does not change, and can in fact find a family of other like minded people without changing. It’s a Christmas story for those of us who don’t have the whole “perfect family” ideal.
If your favorite holiday film is one of those that brings to mind a warm fire and everyone wearing Christmas themed sweaters with eggnog in hand or even if you can’t in your wildest dreams conceive of being cynical about the season I still suggest you run out and rent this film for your holiday marathons. You might find a little pocket of yourself that identifies with the “freaks” or likes the stark visuals contrasted with the brightness of Christmas. If nothing else you’ll see how other people look at Christmas and hear some of the funniest holiday songs ever.