Tim Burton is great. The people agree, with a net box office earnings of over four billion
dollars to prove it. He is beloved for his macabre tales with quirky protagonists, his sense of humor, and his dedication to his own originality and voice. The best way to understand why this is, however, is not to study his films; an analysis of Burton’s great masterpiece work of children’s literature, The Nightmare Before Christmas, hearkens back to the parodies revolutionized by Lewis Carroll, and proves his brilliance as a writer and creator overall.
At the start, Burton recalls the wit and playful mockery exemplified by Carroll in Alice and Wonderland‘s parody poems like “How Doth the Little Crocodile,” which pokes fun at the contemporarily popular song, “How Doth the Little Busy Bee.” Such spins of took norms of the day and questioned their integrity. “The Little Busy Bee” warns, “In works of labor or of skill, I would be busy too; for Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.” Despite being written in the century preceding Locke’s tabula rasa, it was still in Victorian England’s shared consciousness as a Christian nation that children were sinful in nature. They were, therefore, in need of constant business to prevent them from falling into evil ways. Carroll takes this dull image of some blonde, silent, saintly child and re-imagines them like a feral crocodile: “How doth the little crocodile improve his shining tail, and pour the waters of the Nile on every golden scale!” Alice herself is this child, curious, mischievous and bored; placing her in a successful novel mocked Victorian England’s snobbery right under its nose.
Carroll walked with parody so that Burton could run. The ever-so-wholesome Christmas poem, The Nightmare Before Christmas, is Burton’s “Little Crocodile,” and Jack Skellington is his Alice. But unlike that beautiful heroine, Skellington’s Pumpkin King of Halloween Town looks like a villain. He has long, looming limbs for his white skeletal head to perch on, with hollowed eyes and a stitched-on smile. Not the typical protagonist. What’s more, Skellington’s hands are idle; he is not a little busy bee (how very villainous!). He has become disinterested in his duties as ruler of the land of scary, which prompts him to go outside his allotted position, a taboo in Carroll’s time that still lingers.
Feeling this sense of dissatisfaction with his life, he wanders into the forest and falls through a door (as Alice down the rabbit hole) into the land of Christmas, where the world is bright and cheerful. Jack is overjoyed. He then learns of a massive, jolly, red being called Santa Claus that rules this land and brings toys to children every year. After bringing home some artifacts from Christmas town and describing Santa Claus, the various goblins, ghouls, witches, and demons of Halloween Town find this other land quite frightening.
Jack is lonely and misunderstood again; he wonders, “Well, I could be Santa, and I could spread cheer! Why does he get to do it year after year?” Narration explains, “Outraged by injustice, Jack thought and he thought…” Here is a perfect example of a moment in which the typically villainous character is flipped to experience complex emotions with existential self-assessment, jealousy, and bargaining. Burton uses the word ‘injustice’ here, as it demonstrates the idea of the typically delinquent character having a sense of right and wrong.
When Burton reaches the climax of the story, “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was peaceful, not even a mouse…” he continues on a sling of charmingly scary events that all point back to the original Night Before Christmas with language that is so outright disturbing that it pokes fun at the notion of perfect family, gifts, and goodness in general.
Instead of dreaming of sugar plum fairies, the children are dreaming of skeleton heads. Instead of Santa’s jolly laughter, they receive Skellington’s groans. Burton also goes into the homes of specific children, such as plain-sounding Susie and Dave, and shakes up their world by giving them two demons: “Gumby and Pokey from the grave.”
As the poem progresses, Skellington further examines himself and feels sad that the
children do not seem to be enjoying his version of Christmas cheer. This is yet another instance of yielding empathy from an otherwise stock-cast bad guy.
Eventually, Santa does come to his aid and returns all to order, but not without promising Jack that he will bring Christmas to Halloween Town. It is a sweet ending that emphasizes how both merriment and fright are essential and important parts of life. Jack must do his duty, and Santa must do his, but neither of them is any better than the other.
Even though both Carroll and Burton took a great risk in writing such odd, twisted tales as these, critical acclaim of both the book and subsequent film proves that rewards are often given to those who take creative leaps. With cleverness and confidence to write characters that are not typical to the norm, Burton has taught all writers a very valuable lesson: if we are to create anything durable and great, we must approach the work not only with the aim to entertain and play with words, but alson to encourage readers, regardless of age, to challenge and question the world they live in.