Jacob's Favorite Christmas Films: #4. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993)
Let's get this out of the way right up front: While Tim Burton produced the film and created the concept, he did not direct The Nightmare Before Christmas. That honor goes to Henry Selick. Just wanted to clear that up before going into this weird masterpiece.
It's also worth getting out of the way that I didn't grow up with this movie. When I was a kid, I heard about it all the time, but never actually got around to watching it until I was part of the way through high school. I didn't really know what to expect beyond a thin skeleton being in love with a stand-in for the Bride of Frankenstein. Oh, and I knew it was a musical that was animated through stop-motion. That was really all I had to go off of.
It's so much more than that.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a film that repackages an unbelievable number of influences together to create a wholly unique vision. It's not every day that you mention a film that can be linked to Dr. Strangelove, old school Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV specials, the films of Ed Wood, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the German expressionist movement, the Betty Boop cartoon "The Old Of The Mountain," the Universal monster films, and more. The Nightmare Before Christmas has a reputation as a Goth culture classic, but I can't believe it doesn't get more love from film geeks. It's a smorgasbord of influences, all worth tracking down and knowing.
(As an aside, there's nothing wrong with The Nightmare Before Christmas being a Goth culture touchstone. People obviously identify with Jack Skellington and Sally, and that's cool! However, and I hate to say this, I think one of the reasons that people tend to write off The Nightmare Before Christmas is because of its proximity to Goth culture. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's worth mentioning because of how sad it is that people are willing to write off the film just because of that, sight unseen.)
The plot concerns poor Jack Skellington, the scariest denizen of Halloweentown, which is exactly what it sounds like, a haven for ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and other monsters that go bump in the night. Jack is bored of his existence until he inadvertently discovers Christmastown. He falls in love with the holiday, but decides that it's the spark he's needed in his life to get himself back on track, leading him down a twisted path of kidnapping Santa Claus to try and claim the holiday for himself.
I don't want to wander into spoiler territory too much in case anyone who's reading this hasn't seen it, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is a bit more complex than it leads on. It moves at a breathless pace, barely clocking in at an hour and sixteen minutes. In that short time, it creates an interesting arc about narcissism and good intentions, and the disturbing proximity between those two concepts. It's even been interpreted as a prescient commentary on cultural appropriation, a sentence that sounds absurd unless you've seen the movie.
Since The Nightmare Before Christmas is a musical though, the music has to actually hold up its end of the bargain. No exaggeration, all of the music in The Nightmare Before Christmas is either good or great. None of it is explicitly bad, songs are either stronger or weaker than the others, with the standouts being "This is Halloween," "What's This?," "Kidnap the Sandy Claws," and "Oogie Boogie's Song."
Speaking of Oogie Boogie... What an amazing nightmare he is. I never pictured the boogie man as a bunch of potato sacks sewn together with a colony of neon bugs living inside of it, but Tim Burton did, and it leaves a hell of a mark. Clearly inspired by the work of Cab Calloway's collaborations with the Betty Boop cartoons, "Oogie Boogie's Song" is a standout sequence of music and animation coming together in vivid and untold ways.
The animation on the whole is beyond gorgeous and represents some of the best stop-motion ever committed to film. There's a tactile feel to stop-motion that no other medium has successfully recreated, and The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of the best examples the medium has of its dreamlike quality.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true masterpiece of animation, heightened by literal decades worth of reverence to its influences. Everything here has come together in nearly perfect order. It remains one of the most instantly re-watchable films that Disney has ever produced, and considering that's a catalog that spans eighty years, that should speak for itself.
Plus, it has the bonus of also being a Halloween movie too, so you have a seasonal reason to watch it at least two times a year.