Burton's October Surprise

Burton's past work hinted at this potential, but nobody could have guessed he'd cook up something that works on so many levels. It's funny, it's scary, it's clever, it's poignant. It's simple enough for children to follow, yet richly textured and well-written enough to appeal to adults. From Pee-wee to Edward Scissorhands, Burton has always been quirky and funny and on the verge of really doing something spectacular. This time he makes it. Freed from the bonds of conventional storytelling and the hassles of working with actors (which was never his strongest suit), Burton's vision flourishes.

It's like Jurassic Park in a way. Both films dazzle the viewer by creating a world of the imagination on screen. Spielberg's summer blockbuster soared whenever there was a dinosaur in the frame, but sagged when the human actors took over. Burton's masterpiece is saddled with no such liability. There are no people to worry about.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is like the Spielberg vehicle in another way as well. Appropriateness for children, a topic that became all the rage in the wake of dino-mania, is likely to become the subject of much debate. Although all of the characters are puppets and nothing bad actually happens to a "normal" human, the residents of Halloweentown are a motley collection of ghouls with oozing skin and open wounds who walk around with hatchets protruding from their skulls like casual fashion accessories. When Jack delivers his Christmas presents -- shrunken heads, toy ducks with bleeding bullet holes, stuffed snakes that come alive and devour Christmas trees, and malevolent jack-in-the-boxes with razor-sharp teeth -- you can almost hear those concerned parents warming up for the backlash.

That would be a shame. Like most of the creatures of Halloweentown (with the exception of Oogie Boogie, who resides in an underground lair on the outskirts), Jack is basically a decent, hard-working guy. He's not out to hurt anybody. It's this sort of naive innocence that gives the movie much of its charm and makes it more of a benevolent fantasy than a scarefest.

Don't be afraid. This Nightmare is more like a dream come true.

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