30 Years Ago, One Classic Halloween Movie Was Actually A Slow Burn To Success
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Thirty years ago, on October 13, 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas hit theaters and wasn’t an instant success. Right? Wrong? While it’s true that the film was a critical and commercial hit upon its release in 1993, it didn’t truly explode in popularity until it hit home video and became a merchandising sensation. The fifty million dollars The Nightmare Before Christmas grossed domestically upon its release in October, 1993, pales in comparison to the billions of dollars it has made in merchandising in the three decades since its release. The domination of The Nightmare Before Christmas was a strange slow burn that is hard to imagine now.
But the secret of The Nightmare Before Christmas’s longevity is that its not really just a Halloween movie. It’s a Christmas classic, too.
There is no perennial like a Christmas perennial. Box office hits make a whole lot of money upon their release and more when they hit home video. Then the money train slows down. A beloved Christmas movie, song or book, however, makes money upon its release, then cleans up on home video. That’s only the beginning of its success and earning power, however. A Christmas perennial cleans up EVERY YEAR for the entire Christmas season. Christmas hits are evergreen. Christmas perennials never stop making money and if they’re VERY successful then they never stop making lots of money. Mariah Carey is an extraordinarily successful musician, for example, but she could probably live comfortably on the royalties and publishing of “All I Want For Christmas Is You” alone.
The commercial genius of The Nightmare Before Christmas is that it is the heartiest and most enduring of Christmas perennials but it’s also a Halloween perennial. That means that for at least three months (four if, like many, your Halloween season begins at the beginning of September) it’s Nightmare Before Christmas season, something your local Spirit Halloween or Hot Topic will not let you, or your children forget. It’s easy to see why The Nightmare Before Christmas is both a beloved piece of Americana that only seems to become bigger and more important with time and a cash cow for Disney.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is also a fascinating metaphor for Tim Burton’s complicated and sometimes thorny relationship with Disney. The wholesome family institution gave Burton his break as an animator and director through its apprenticeship program in the early and mid 1980s and then gave him the old heave-ho. Burton says he was politely invited to leave the studio because he had made, in 1984’s Frankenweenie, a short film that was far too morbid, gothic and scary for Disney’s core demographic of young kids.
So, Burton and Disney always made for strange bedfellows. Disney was the biggest, most wholesome and American of movie studios. Burton was a quintessential goth, a black-clad misfit who worshipped Charles Addams, Vincent Price, Edgar Allen Poe and German Expressionism. If Halloween were a person it would be a young Tim Burton. Alas, to paraphrase Beetlejuice Disney didn’t exactly go for strange and unusual in its creators and the young Burton was nothing if not strange and unusual.
Disney was, and remains, the Christmas of movie studios. It’s hard to overstate the cultural and financial importance of Disney and Christmas. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that American culture, for the most part is Christmas and Disney. Like Jack Skellington, Burton wasn’t just successful at what he did; he was the most successful person in his field. When The Nightmare Before Christmas began a very long production period with Henry Selick as director, Caroline Williams as screenwriter (working from a story and characters by Burton), Mark Mothersbaugh as the composer, songwriter, lyricist and the singing voice of Jack Skellington and Burton as producer the Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure director was the king of goth blockbusters.
Burton might have been too weird, dark and non-commercial for Disney but hits like Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns weren’t too weird, dark or non-commercial for critics or audiences. Burton wanted to do something, different, however. Just as Jack Skellington wants to leave his comfort zone/area of specialty and take over Christmas Burton wanted to make something decidedly different than his most recent projects: a Disney cartoon.
Ah, but Burton’s idea of a Disney cartoon was decidedly different from others. For starters, The Nightmare Before Christmas used the laborious, time-intensive and wondrous process of stop motion animation instead of the conventional, cel-based method Disney employed. Burton’s vision for his Disney cartoon was as dark, ghoulish and wildly inappropriate as Jack Skellington’s conception of Christmas, which aims for wonder and awe but results instead in terror, horror and mass panic.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was in fact too dark and ghoulish for Disney, at least, at first. Though it was a Disney production the studio got cold feet and released it through the more adult-oriented Touchstone Pictures. Disney was worried about a replay of the controversy over Burton’s Batman Returns, which was marketed as a fun superhero movie for kids then faced a backlash from parents and parent groups for its violent imagery, Michelle Pfeiffer drinking out of cat dishes, and overall depravity. Disney was understandably skittish about their pristine name and image being associated with a ghoulish dark comedy that features a song (“Kidnap the Sandy Claws”) where a trio of demonic troublemakers sing about their desire to kidnap Santa Claus and then torture and murder the plus-sized gift-giver.
Success unsurprisingly changed the way Disney saw Burton. After its successful theatrical release The Nightmare Before Christmas became a Disney movie all over again. On Disney+ it begins with the Disney logo and then the words Walt Disney Presents. It turns out that Disney definitely did want to be linked in the public mind forever with Burton’s ghoulish brainchild, particularly once it began generating oodles and oodles of cash.
Jack Skellington might not have succeeded when he decided to recreate Christmas in his own monstrous image but Burton and his gifted collaborators made an animation classic that has his smudgy fingerprints on every lovingly crafted frame. Burton might just have gone Disney too successfully. Like Disney he has devoted much of the past 25 years to new versions of oft-told tales rather than create something new, original and personal. These include 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, an utter mediocrity that added nothing to Lewis Carroll’s classic tale yet grossed over a billion dollars at the box-office and 2019’s Dumbo, which earned mediocre reviews and underwhelming box-office.
Later, Burton was ostensibly fired for making Frankenweenie as a short film but in the early oughts Disney dramatically changed course and made Frankenweenie as a stop-motion animated 3-D movie that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film.
Bottom line: The weirdo who got fired for not fitting in ended up giving Disney its biggest, most lucrative and enduring Christmas movie ever. Or wait, is it a Halloween movie after all?