By Owen Gleiberman
Updated August 07, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

The hero of the animated musical fantasy Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG) is a friendly corpse named Jack Skellington. Jack’s head is like a waxy, misshapen golf ball with huge black sockets where the eyes should be; his mouth, a stitched slit full of pegged teeth, breaks into a ghastly open wound of a smile. He looks like a jack-o’-lantern after a car accident, and his skeletal body isn’t much more appealing. Clad in a tattered tuxedo, it’s so tall and straight and spindly it isn’t quite there. The latest of Burton’s sad-sack, eternal-adolescent outcasts, Jack lives in Halloweentown, a fabulously gnarled, horror-movie underworld that suggests a Dr. Seuss dreamscape as redesigned by Hieronymus Bosch. A ringmaster among freaks, Jack gets a charge out of frightening people. But then he visits Christmastown and discovers (well, sort of) the spirit of Christmas. He learns that what he really wants is a friend.

Is Jack, the all-talking, all-singing death boy, too grotesque a hero for children? Not really: Kids have always loved macabre fantasy and gross-out humor. The real question is whether he’s a charming enough apparition for kids or adults. As we stare at Jack’s empty eyes (and listen to his blandly incongruous, nice-animated-guy voice), there’s nothing to hook into — no personality, no spark. He’s a technical achievement in search of a soul. And so is the movie.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a fantasy film that’s at once so visually amazing and so emotionally dead. Scored to a series of romantic neo-Kurt Weill musical numbers by Danny Elfman, Nightmare is packed, in every madly detailed frame, with sights and sounds engineered to make your senses go pop. Using a sophisticated update of the stop-motion puppet-animation process familiar from the Rankin-Bass television Christmas specials of 25 years ago, Burton (who conceived and produced the film) and his director, Henry Selick, cram the screen with chattering ghoulies who scramble around miniature sets that are extraordinary in their surreal grandeur. Yet none of the little monsters ever become characters — they’re more like animated extras — and the movie, for all its virtuosity, has been thought out in terms of design rather than gags. In place of the inspired, hellzapoppin slapstick of Burton’s best movies (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, the first Batman), Nightmare provides a joyless frenzy of movement.

There are a few fun moments. I laughed out loud when a trio of Halloweentown musicians attempted their deathly rendition of ”Jingle Bells.” And the movie gathers a Burtonesque momentum when Jack, pretending to be Santa, slides down chimneys to deliver a series of demonic presents (shrunken heads, tree-eating snakes) to horrified children. This prankishly subversive sequence lays bare what’s so wrong with the rest of the film. The Nightmare Before Christmas is a fable in which the spirit of Christmas finally triumphs over that of Halloween. Yet it’s clear that Burton’s allegiance will always be with the ghouls, not the goody-goodies. Is it any wonder this Nightmare never coalesces? He couldn’t make up his mind about whether to be naughty or nice. C