Written By: Warren C. Bennett
Over the next two months, AKA “The Holiday Season,” I’m going to be reviewing a smattering of holiday movies. I didn’t want to just concentrate on Christmas, though I’m sure that will be the majority of the films. Today marks the first one so look out for more in the coming weeks.
Nightmare Before Christmas is a children’s movie with an edge. It celebrates darkness with gusto, embracing all the horror and evil that makes up the Halloween holiday. It’s obvious the artists behind this movie love Halloween and all the dark iconography that accompanies it. Yet, I’m not sure I could recommend this as a movie to watch, since I’m not sure it’s a good film. It is a well made film and anyone that is interested in stop motion animation should give it a go at least once. However, I found my mind drifting much during the movie and that bothers me a bit. Among the cacophony of howls, the shrieks of the characters and the magnificently dark art of Halloween Town, I felt something I felt when I first watched the movie but didn’t really acknowledge: Boredom.
The pacing of the film is rather odd. There are moments of sheer enjoyment and artistry but also long periods of waiting for the movie to get to a better scene. It’s like going from one beautifully wretched mountain peak to another, but having to walk through a dirt valley in between. I can see why Nightmare Before Christmas has so many fans and is a cult classic, but I sometimes think that fandom ignores the films shortcomings. It feels like screenplay wasn’t wholly written before the movie started production. I think the crew had a general idea of what they wanted, but hadn’t nailed down the complete story yet. This can work with some movies yet it seems to be a roadblock to this film.
One of the most sublime parts of the movie is the music. The score for the film is that classic Danny Elfman style, the one commonly heard in Tim Burton movies. The musical score is great, with a soundtrack that reflects the many musical numbers presented throughout the film. When the characters aren’t singing, the soundtrack hearkens back to the main musical scores of the film. Refrains of the main themes can be found in many parts of the movie, emphasizing whatever action is happening on screen at the moment. The score itself is a great piece of composition, but I’m not sure the same holds up when the characters open their mouth to sing.
For me, the actual character driven musical numbers are hit and miss. I really enjoyed Danny Elfman belting out “What’s This?” as Jack Skellington first enters Christmas Town and the dark introduction to Halloween town. Yet, the first Jack Skellington song about his issues with Halloween fell flat for me. I equate this song to the one in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory where Charlie’s mom sings about her son. I still fast forward through that part of Willy Wonka, mainly because it drags down my experience of the movie. I understand that Charlie’s mom wants the best for him, but please couldn’t we just have two lines of dialogue to state that? It is the same in this movie. We know Jack has issues before he even starts singing, so why have the song in the film? Other songs in the film are a bit better, but none matches the magic of “What’s This?”
I’m also not sure I’d actually show this film to kids. There are some parts in it that are genuinely creepy and a bit disturbing. Outside of the first orgy of dark images there is much more I’d not want to show my mythical children. When Jack takes over Santa’s job, there are a lot of macabre presents that are given out. I understand that the residents of Halloween Town would do this, but do I really want children seeing a child holding a severed head? Of course, each parent has to make his or her own decision, but this stuff did genuinely bother me. A saving grace is that Santa comes in and makes things right but I never quite get the feeling Jack really learns his lesson.
This impression bothers me a little: I’m not one that thinks children’s movies and fiction should be all about safety and light, with no mention of darkness. However, I feel that Nightmare may cross over a line for me. I’d rather load up The Dark Crystal or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to show my future children. Those have a bit of an edge but don’t celebrate darkness.
Of course, that doesn’t negate the overall feeling of boredom I have with this film. I think if the script was written better and the plot tightened up, this might not just be a cult classic but a genuine classic in its own right. I can thank this film for showing, back in the early 90’s, that stop motion animation wasn’t dead. Even if I can’t recommend this film based on the story and pacing, I can based on the awesome-ly creative art and style that went in to this production. Buy or rent it for that but don’t expect the story to hold you.