It's certainly more common knowledge 25 years later than it was at the time of the film's premiere in October 1993 (when Disney did everything in its power to hide the information), but it still bears mentioning that the film which has been marketed since Day 1 as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is not, in fact, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. It was based on an amusingly macabre poem he wrote when he was an animator at Disney in 1982, about sad Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon and sung by Danny Elfman; I suspect the latter gets more lines), who decided to stop making Halloween in order to take Christmas over from Santa. Many of the character designs, including the all-important design of the spindly, skeletal protagonist, are closely based on his illustrations for that poem. But Burton was mostly uninvolved with the actual creation of the film, outside of offering some initial passes on fleshing out the slender poem into a slender feature (76 minutes, a few of which are just credits). This matters because of the man who did get the directing job: Henry Selick, who had been a Disney animator at the same time Burton was, and whose work directing 2009's Coraline remains one of the most critical moments in the development of animation in the 21st Century.

The existence of Coraline, and its young siblings produced by the great studio Laika, as well as Burton's 2005 Corpse Bride, and the 1996 Selick-directed James and the Giant Peach - all of them involving substantial bleedover in behind-the-scenes talent from Nightmare - can serve to make the quarter-century old film look a bit rough around the edges. There's simply no argument to be made that its various successors don't improve on it substantially as a work of craftsmanship, picking up its innovations in the realm of stop-motion animation and elaborating them into some dumbfoundingly complex, ambitious works. But in this regard, The Nightmare Before Christmas can only be regarded as a victim of its own success. In 1993, films like this simply did not exist. Stop-motion animation was both fussy and outdated (in a kind of passing of the torch, Nightmare lost the Best Visual Effects Oscar that year to Jurassic Park, a movie that specifically did not include any stop-motion), and this wasn't just stop-motion, it was the most advanced stop-motion in the history of the medium, using an unprecedented array of subtle facial expressions on detachable heads and mouths to give its cast of foot-tall puppets a range of emotional responses that had never been attempted before. Plus, Disney threw plenty of resources for high-end post-production effects and traditional animation to create the smoothest movement and most elaborate staging that had ever been seen. No two ways about it, put Nightmare next to Coraline (to say nothing of even more audacious work, like 2016's Kubo and the Two Strings), and it looks primitive as all hell, but it is no exaggeration at all to say that Coraline's is totally unimaginable in the absence of Nightmare.

Quite a lot of words to defend a film against a criticism that has never, I think, actually been leveled at it. Nobody is going around grousing that The Nightmare Before Christmas is showing its age. The people still talking about The Nightmare Before Christmas after a quarter of a century are mostly people talking about what a for-the-ages masterpiece it is, and I see no reason to disagree with the film's cult on any point other than the absurd contention by some of them that this is a Halloween movie. This is, I'm sorry, a pristine example of a Christmas movie. There's this guy who's miserable with his everyday life, and to escape from the doldrums, he gets way too into decorating for Christmas, obsessing over the surface trappings of the holiday while forgetting the true spirit of the holiday. Which, after some bumps along the way, and with a good talking-to by Santa Claus, he remembers. Cue a rejuvenated spirit of coping with his normal routine, and also ending up with the woman who has been waiting patiently for him to pull his head out of his ass. If the man was, say, a CPA from Ann Arbor, we wouldn't say that this was therefore an "accounting movie"; I refuse to call it a "Halloween" movie just because the man is the skeletal Pumpkin King of Halloween.

The fun of the thing, anyway, lies in the macabre pleasure of seeing how traditional Christmas trappings are filtered through the warped mind of monsters and ghosts, and represented onscreen in the glorious unsteady lines and spiky angles of Burton Gothic (it's hard to remember, but this was back in the days when "Tim Burton style" meant something delightfully off-kilter and even a smidgen transgressive was waiting for us, rather than just an ugly-ass generic fantasy land where everybody wears too much gaudy makeup. Or whatever the fuck Big Eyes was). It's one of the great triumphs of fantasy production design, creating three entirely distinct worlds - the brown-streaked parody of & homage to Expressionist horror that is Halloween Town, the squishy lines and dizzying oversaturated colors and sparkly, damn near luminescent snow in the barely-glimpsed Christmas Town, and the square angles and muted tones of the real world - and treating each of them in turn as a wonderful doll house to manipulate in every possible way. The critical piece of genius at the foundation of all the rest of the film is that this really could only possibly be stop-motion animation: we need to feel like those sets are physically real, giving presence and weight to the locations, but we also need to feel like they're smaller than our world, designed and manipulated, to facilitate the degree to which this all feels like animators goofing around with their toys at playtime. Play is absolutely crucial here: it's the difference between a version of the film that's simply morbid, a version that's obnoxiously forthright in its desire to treat a nice thing like Christmas with gross irony, and the version we get, the masterpiece of movement and light and color and shape.

The secret hiding not very far below the surface is that this really is kind of shabby storytelling. Characters evolve much too fast, the pacing is inscrutable, the villain comes out of nowhere and has no discernible relationship to anything else in the film. And that's perfectly okay, because everything about Nightmare is pushing us towards other things than appreciating the solidity of the story. The joyfully foregrounded artifice of the sets and puppets is a big part of that. So is the massive quantity of music in the film. Almost half of the film's running time consists of songs written by Elfman, and a good portion of the remainder is heavily muscalised moments. Basically, we have here the next best thing to a cinematic cantata or an oratorio, with most of the important plot scenes given over to heavily expository singing rather than the usual practice of musicals, leaving the plot to the dialogue and having the songs do all of the heavy emotional work. Add in the slim running time (which is perfect; it is borderline-impossible to imagine this kind of unusual storytelling strategy working over the course of, say, two hours), and what we have feels very not-like-a-movie. Possibly it is only the priming effect of the story and the title if I say that it feels like a Christmas pageant more than anything else, with the participants assuring us that there's an elegant plot hiding beneath the presentational style of the thing itself.

Given how much the film gambles on its design and its music, it's fair to say that the success of this film is almost exclusively a matter of taste. That's probably a little unfair; even if one does not care for the individual songs, I think one should at least be able to appreciate the extreme shift in energy from the sinewy, gloomy songs in the key of Halloween to the short musical phrases bursting joyously throughout "What's This?", the film's big "Christmas is bright and pretty and celebratory number; similarly, the muted, talk-singy approach to Jack's own numbers serves as a good foil to the more boisterous nature of the two villain songs. Still, Elfman is not to all musical tastes, and the rickety "Universal horror by way of Dr. Seuss" vibe of the designs is certainly not to all tastes. Granting that, the totality and tangibility of the world that Selick and his animators extract from Burton's lovely spidery drawings is, simply put, one of the major achievements of animation history. Very few movies take place in what is absolutely a different world in every meaningful detail, and The Nightmare Before Christmas does just that. Anyway, if it is a matter of tastes, mine happen to align with the film's 100%, so I should doubtlessly not be trusted on these matters at all. And for its charmingly family-friendly perversion in running a typical Christmas season awakening to the joys of life and community through the grotesqueries of rotting corpses and a thick wet autumnal feeling (right down to the exactly perfect touch that the film's romantic lead, voiced with chipper melancholy by Catherine O'Hara, is a sentient rag doll stuffed with fallen leaves), and finding that the warm-hearted uplift still comes through loud and clear, I am quite happy to call this my very favorite Christmas movie ever made.