The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
A Christmas Story and Bad Santa are probably my favorite Christmas movies...but they don't exactly fit in with this blog, so let's go with the only holiday movie you can watch twice a year! It's weird to think The Nightmare Before Christmas came out over 20 years ago - makes me feel kind of old. While it's basically Tim Burton's brainchild, based on a storybook he wrote and illustrated, the movie was actually written by Caroline Thompson and directed by Henry Selick (who directed the...um, let's say "less good" Monkeybone and designed the weird fish for Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), as Burton was busy directing Batman Returns. Originally released under Disney's Touchstone label for being potentially too frightening for younger kids, it is, possibly, the company's biggest cult classic. Hot Topic was basically a Nightmare Before Christmas store for a while there.
So gangly Jack Skellington, the pumpkin king of Halloween Town, is depressed and craving a change of pace from planning Halloween all year, every year. While walking in the woods, Jack accidentally falls into the neighboring Christmas Town, where he's immediately captivated by the holiday cheer and strange customs...so he decides he's going to take over, and sets off a disastrous chain of miscalculations and misunderstandings. Jack is the only resident of Halloween Town who's seen Christmas Town firsthand, but he becomes the blind leading the blind, as he doesn't actually understand the place any better than the various ghouls, monsters and vampires he's enlisted to help him realize his dream.
The only Halloween Town local who's totally honest with Jack about his misguided attempts to usurp Christmas is Sally, the rag doll daughter of mad scientist Dr. Finklestein. Sally harbors a secret crush on Jack and only wants him to be happy, but she's had a vision of Jack's Christmas ending in tragedy. It's mostly because Jack and everyone around him see everything through a Halloween-tinted lens, and while they're not at all malicious, they're the wrong people for the job. They want everyone to be happy, but they just sort of assume that carnivorous holly wreaths, giant snakes and living toys are what makes everyone happy, and Jack is too caught up in his excitement and enthusiasm to realize how misguided he is.
Since there has to be a villain, Jack also makes the rather unwise decision to kidnap Santa Claus, who ends up turned over to Oogie Boogie, a New Orleans jazz-singing, gambling, glow-in-the-dark burlap sack of bugs and spiders, and the only resident of Halloween Town everyone seems to recognize as purely malevolent. While he's pretty awesome to look at, he's strangely irrelevant to the plot, only becoming involved when a rescue attempt by Sally results in both her and Santa being trapped in sort of a James Bond trap for Oogie's amusement.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is a beautifully designed movie, with a look and feel they've since tried to recapture - and not quite succeeded - with James and the Giant Peach and The Corpse Bride. I've had a soft spot for stop-motion animation ever since I saw Harryhausen's Jason and the Argonauts, and this is some of the most intricate you'll ever see. (We don't see much of it at all anymore, now.) The sets are gorgeous, from Oogie Boogie's Day of the Dead / Wild West-themed fluorescent casino to the wider shots of Halloween Town, which, not coincidentally, since Tim Burton is our primary source of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari homages, pretty closely resembles Holstenwall. Still, if this movie has anyone's creative stamp on it, it's Danny Elfman. He composed the score, he wrote the songs and he provides Jack's singing voice - it's as much his movie as Burton's, perhaps more so.
The message of the film is harder to unpack. Jack is a complicated character, and you could come away from the movie with a sense that it was trying to convey a number of things. That the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? That you should learn to recognize your own strengths and take pride in them, and that being the best at one thing doesn't mean you'll do well at others? If you're feeling less charitable, you could say that it's a movie that advocates learning your place, because you can't be anything except what you are. I can at least get behind two of its messages. One is that a change of scenery can be exactly what a person needs when suffering from depression and burnout. The other is that even if you try and fail, the experience can nonetheless give you a valuable new perspective and inspire you.
Available On: Netflix.