The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) [Blu-ray]

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Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View

From one Christmassy classic musical (Meet Me In St Louis) to another – but this one couldn’t be a darker, more different or more modern face on the festive season.

A Charles Addams for the modern day, Tim Burton’s visual style is unmistakable and stamped all over this animated ghoulish fairy tale – even though he was not himself the film’s director. That duty is handed over to Henry Selick, but in every other respect this is a thoroughly Burtonesque film down to each and every frame, with the production design replicating as closely as possible the drawings that producer Burton had created of a nightmarish Hallowe’en World, situated (inappropriately, as it turns out) close to the far more colourful, soft-focus Christmas World of fun and delights.

The style is brilliant: the physical sets, puppets and costumes for this predominantly stop-motion film (augmented with touches of traditional and CGI animation here and there) retain that hand-drawn look of Burton’s sketches and are photographed in immaculate pin-point detail, making the film a delight to view in Blu-ray format which beautifully enhances the contrast and shadows to give depth and reality to what we see on screens.

The film’s premise is quite delicious – that Jack Skellington (the main organiser of Hallowe’en) has grown tired of his job and decides that he wants to have a go at remodelling the Christmas holiday instead, even if it means having to kidnap Santa Clause to keep him out of the way. It’s incredibly dark and ghoulish for a kid’s film, in just the way that the classic Grimm fairy tales knew that in order to truly delight children, first you had to chill them to the bone and terrify the living daylights out of them so as not to leave the whole endeavour too sickly sweet in total.

The film gets off to a terrific start, with the opening numbers (written and largely sung by long-time Burton collaborator Danny Elfman) real barnstormers: “This is Hallowe’en”, “Jack’s Lament” and “What’s This?” are instant delights that have you singing along almost from the get-go. And the film also has a wonderful climax, with the final 20 minutes seeing the consequences of the wildly inventive Hallowe’en-themed Christmas spreading tears and terror around the world in equal measure, until the authorities succeed in blowing Jack and his skeleton crew out of the sky in order to stop his misguided attempts to spread ghoulish Christmas ‘cheer’ to the scared children of the world.

What stops this becoming a perfect Christmas classis is the 20 minutes or so in between that bravura start and the rousing climax. From the moment Jack starts to outline his plans to the other inhabitants and workers of Hallowe’en World to the moment that Christmas arrives, the film seems to lose momentum and starts to sag and deflate in the middle. Even the songs seem to lapse into the humdrum and make little impact. Meanwhile, the interesting characters that we had been introduced to and expected to spend time with – like the two-faced mayor or the evil scientist – fade away and are replaced by a rapid-fire conveyor belt of new characters who have little or no time to make an impression.

I confess, I grew a little restless and even a touch bored during this sequence, and my mind wandered to other distractions. Considering that the film is only a shade over 70 minutes in total, a hole of 20 minutes is a rather large problem in proportion. It’s as though in its rush to be fast-moving and be seen to be packing as much in as possible, the film ran out of inventiveness and ended up padding out its short length despite the fast and furious pacing conspicuously suggesting it was packing huge amounts in.

It’s not the first time I’ve seen the film: I also watched it (on DVD) just before Christmas 2007. I still had my notes on what I thought about it first time around, and when I re-read them to find out what I thought I found that sure enough I reckoned the same thing back then, too: “The film has a great start but dips in the middle and attention wanders somewhat despite the kid-friendly short length … before coming back strongly for the Hallowe’en Christmas section and final chase-and-rescue.” It doesn’t mean that I’m right, of course, and you may very well disagree with me on this one since it seems I’m in the minority when it comes to criticising it, but at least I seem to be consistent in my own reaction to this film.

In other words: if this had been a 45-50 minute short, it would have been brilliant and utterly terrific. But as a (short) full-length movie, it doesn’t quite have the substance to support all the fabulous style that’s ladled upon it, which means it falls short of fully achieving the classic status that it might otherwise have attained.

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