So, the last time I did a Breaking Genre post, I looked at Star Wars and considered whether it fit more as a Science Fiction or Fantasy series. This one won’t be as easy, in no small part because Halloween movies and Christmas movies aren’t quite genres? I mean, they are, but they aren’t. You wouldn’t say that A Christmas Carol is the same type of story as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, but they’re both “Christmas movies”. And that’s not to mention the huge gulf between Halloweentown and John Carpenter’s Halloween. What makes something a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie has almost more to do with the setting than most other genres, save historical fiction.
Just to recap, here are the categories I use to help define genre:
Who? — Characters and character archetypes. This is both generic stuff like “The Hero” and “The Mentor”, as well as more genre specific stuff, like “The Evil AI” and “The Hard-boiled Detective”.
What? — Plot. This covers the structure of the story itself, but also what other stories or ideas that the plot is based on.
Where? — Setting, or the place and time where the plot happens. Keep an eye on this one, it’s going to be a bit more tricky this time.
Why? — Themes or messages. It asks both why the plot happens, as well as why the story is being told.
How? — This covers some of the more technical aspects of the film-making process, but also the tone of the movie itself. How you tell a story is almost as important as why.
To help, I’ll be bringing in examples of both genres to help compare and decide, ranging from the traditional Universal Monster movies, to the classic Rankin-Bass specials. The film actually runs the gamut on that front, which is part of the reason it’s so hard to classify.
So, would you like to see something strange?
The movie doesn’t have a particularly large cast, when it comes to major and minor characters. There are a lot of ensemble parts, and certainly the creativity of Tim Burton and Henry Selick comes through in character design, but named characters? Those are at a premium. There’s also the matter of how the characters fit with the theme of their settings, as well as their function within the story. Most of the characters are citizens of Halloween town– a collection of monsters and creatures and undead beings that are often based on the classic Universal Monsters (Sally, the wolfman, the vampire pack) or else other Halloween associated characters (Jack Skellington, Dr. Finklestein, Oogie Boogie). What makes this category contested is the presence of Santa, or “Sandy Claws”, as the movie calls him. There are very few movies that have Santa that aren’t Christmas movies, probably as much as there are Christmas movies without Santa (90% of those are Christmas Carol adaptations, you can count on it). However, the cast overwhelmingly skews towards Halloween.
The basic story for The Nightmare Before Christmas is based on a poem written by Tim Burton. The original poem had only the characters of Jack, Zero, and Santa, and just concerned the plot of taking over Christmas. Of course, the poem would never have filled a feature-length film. But using the poem as a starting point, the plot becomes very Seussian. Think about it– a scary character comes across a town that loves Christmas more than anything, decides to take action against it, and learns a lesson about what Christmas is. Both Jack and the Grinch are foils to Santa, but while the Grinch tries to steal Christmas by removing everything associated with the holiday, Jack steals Christmas by turning it into Halloween. The main plot is very Christmas-y in that respect.
There are also the subplots– Sally’s rebellion against Dr. Finklestein is in line with various Frankenstein variations, her vision of Jack’s Christmas and subsequent warnings against his involvement in the holiday is actually straight out of Greek myth. But the most notable is the subplot of rescuing Santa from Oogie Boogie. Spoilers for a 20+ year old movie, but this is resolved by straight-up murder from both Jack and Santa. Oogie is a character that is more in line with Jigsaw than with Jacob Marley. Lock, Shock, and Barrel’s “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” is full of various tortures and deaths they could put Santa through before bringing him to Oogie, despite Jack’s orders to leave Oogie out of it. The main plot also can’t be resolved until this plot is dealt with. But as memorable as this part of the film is, it is still a subplot. Most everything else is centered around Jack’s quest to take over Christmas, so I have to give it to that holiday.
This is where we are the most at odds. If you asked someone vaguely familiar with the movie what the setting is, they’d probably remember the excellent opening song “This Is Halloween”, or that the action mostly takes place in Halloween Town. However, setting is not just location, it’s also time. The Nightmare Before Christmas starts in the early hours of an unspecified November 1st, and ends on Christmas Eve. Most Halloween movies take place entirely on Halloween, or lead up to a climax on Halloween night (which might make A Cinderella Story a Halloween movie, come to think of it…) So the question is, what is more important to setting, time or place?
At first, it seems obvious– place is more important. You can’t set a story nowhere, even fantasy stories have fantasy lands that the characters explore. Well, I see that, and raise you both Ralph Finnes’ Coriolanus and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. Coriolanus is explicitly set not in Britain, or Italy, or any of Shakespeare’s other settings, but in “A Place Calling Itself Rome”– which is a reference to John Osborne’s play of the same name, which sought to modernize the Shakespearean classic. It was filmed with mainly British actors in Belgrave, and while it seems to be an alternate Britain, the Roman names and politics exclude it from being so. This is taken further with A Series of Unfortunate Events. Between the main series, The Beatrice Letters, and Snicket’s Unauthorized Autobiography (seriously), the only real place mentioned is Winnipeg– and that’s only through a character who is supposedly its Duchess. Last I checked, Canada doesn’t have a gentry. Most places are unnamed, or if they are named, are given no relation to each other, and they’re all in the same unnamed country. It plays with time too, in one book there’s a computer repair shop next door to a blacksmith. But A Series of Unfortunate Events was always meant to be “surrealism for kids”.
So does that make time more important? Well, no..? A great compliment to any work is for it to be considered “timeless”. Shakespeare is a great example; his plays have been adapted into 90’s teen romcoms, Science Fiction classics, Samurai films, Bollywood films, Broadway musicals, and so much more. Does that make time irrelevant? Well, no– the second half of Pride and Prejudice hinges on a conflict that has to do with the sexual politics of the day, and modern interpretations have to change it, or leave it out entirely. But if I might take it back to Star Wars, in that the setting of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” is more for aesthetic purposes than anything else. In The Nightmare Before Christmas, the fact that it’s mostly set in Halloween Town is integral to the main conflict and the plot. Jack and the others can’t understand Christmas because it’s literally not within their realm of understanding. So as much as the time period is indicative of a Christmas movie, this has to go to Halloween.
The themes of The Nightmare Before Christmas have to do with self-discovery, creative energy, and prudence. Jack is suffering from writer’s block, and it is effecting every aspect of his personality, to the point where he latches on to whatever new thing comes his way without an inch of caution. I can relate. But while most people would smack on a “Be Yourself” message to the movie and call it a day, I find the movie a bit more nuanced than that. And not just because I watched it at least four times in fewer days in preparation for this. The whole problem with Jack doing Christmas is that he can’t stop being himself. He tries to make a paper snowflake and it becomes a spider. His “sleigh” is a coffin with skeletal reindeer. His attempts at a Santa laugh turn into an evil cackle, every time. While he does pretend to be Santa, he very quickly returns to declaring that he is the Pumpkin King. The story is not a cautionary tale in that regard. What happens is that Jack tries something new, and fails. Utterly fails. Like, he’s blown out of the sky by anti-aircraft missiles. But what he learns from this, well, he says it as much:
“Well, what the heck I went and did my best
And, by God, I really tasted something swell.
And for a moment why, I even touched the sky,
And at least I left some stories they could tell– I did!”
He failed, but he failed after making a valiant effort, and ultimately it gives him the creative equivalent of rebooting a computer. He exits the disaster more passionate about his job than he was before. His ideas weren’t bad, they were just misplaced. They would make great Halloween tricks. This makes the theme fairly Christmas-like. Halloween films are mostly about external threats, a monster is attacking the town, or witches, or multiple monsters. Christmas movies deal with internal conflict– Rudolph has to overcome insecurities to lead the team, George Bailey has to realize that he’s done good in the world and that he’d be missed, Doris Walker has to listen to her heart and allow for a bit of childish whimsy in her life. Jack’s conflict is an internal struggle that drives the plot.
We’re 2-for-2, so this is the tiebreaker. And much like the setting, this is split down the middle. On the one hand, the tone and Gothic trappings are perfect for Halloween, on the other hand, how many stop-motion musicals can you name that aren’t Christmas specials? For Star Wars, I gave this category to Science Fiction, because despite everything those movies are made like Science Fiction movies. But this movie isn’t made like either a Halloween film or a Christmas film– it’s made like a Tim Burton Film. And yes, Henry Selick directed and is often given the short end of the stick when it comes to credit for this movie, but the only reason he directed was because Burton was busy with Batman Returns. And Tim Burton had a lot of creative input into the film, from casting, to Danny Elfman’s involvement, to the story itself. So, what genre are Tim Burton films? Are they their own genre? What ties Beetlejuice to Alice in Wonderland to Batman to Edward Scissorhands? Well, they’re all steeped in the Gothic tradition. I wouldn’t call any of them American Gothic (though Edward Scissorhands might qualify, I actually haven’t seen that one), but certainly try to appear that way. And The Nightmare Before Christmas is no exception. Sure, it’s stop-motion, and sure it’s a musical, but does it even remotely look like The Year Without a Santa Claus? The style of movie that Burton and Selick created, that went on to be used in Coraline and Box Trolls and Frankenweenie, is based in Gothic aesthetics. Which sort of makes it a Halloween creative process. Let’s face it, the only story close to being Gothic around Christmas is A Christmas Carol, and Disney once cast Goofy as Jacob Marley. The Muppets cast Statler and Waldorf.
Again, very close, and really, I wouldn’t be doing these kinds of posts if it weren’t close. That’s part of why I didn’t do it for Stranger Things. In reality, outside of arbitration, The Nightmare Before Christmas fits both holidays just fine. You can enjoy the macabre visuals and characters for Halloween, and the poignant message and beautiful animation for Christmas. Hell, I know people that watch this movie year-round, regardless of season. It’s fun, it’s really really well made. If you haven’t seen it, why are you reading this post, go watch it. It’s a holiday classic that will keep coming back year after year.