Burton's October Surprise

Let's not mince words. Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is the most visionary, creepy, macabre, funny, peculiar stop-motion holiday-fable/ghost-story/romantic-comedy/musical ever. Of course, it may well be the only creepy, macabre, funny, peculiar stop-motion holiday-fable/ghost-story/romantic-comedy/musical, but that's part of its appeal. It is, quite simply, like nothing you've ever seen.

Then again, perhaps it would be more accurate to say it's like a lot of things you've seen. Burton is a gifted and selective thief. There are lots of traces of his own films here -- the screwball humor of Pee-wee's Big Adventure, the juxtaposition of the grotesque and the supernatural with the mundane and suburban settings that marked Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, and the gothic sets of Batman and Batman Returns. And let's not forget the non-Burton antecedents: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. They're all well represented, as are the visual flair and morbid wit of cartoonists Edward Gorey and Charles Addams (The Nightmare Before Christmas is a lot closer to the spirit of Addams's work than either the TV or motion picture versions of The Addams Family). Equally critical to the film's astounding look is the stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad), and the cutting-edge animation of MTV's station IDs and Liquid Television.

And then there's the music. Working from an outline supplied by the filmmaker, Danny Elfman (a frequent Burton collaborator and a member of the avant-garde rock band Oingo Boingo) composed the lyrics and music for ten narrative songs that do a lot more than just advance the plot and flesh out the characters. Elfman's work is a revelation; the songs are an expert blend of classical movie musical styles with a hipper-than-Disney edge that, as a whole, surpasses The Little Mermaid or Aladdin. "Sally's Song" is simple and sweet with a Kurt Weill quality, "The Scheming Song" sounds like it was taken from The Wizard of Oz soundtrack, and the "Oogie Boogie" theme is a direct descendant of Cab Calloway's version of "Minnie the Moocher". The end result is a collection of timeless tunes that sound like they could as easily have been written in the Thirties or the Fifties as today.

The story has its origins in a poem Burton wrote a little more than a decade ago while he was toiling at Disney studios as a frustrated animator. The verses were a send-up of Clement Clark Moore's classic, "The Night Before Christmas". Burton did extensive sketches and drawings to back up his version, even going so far as to storyboard several key sequences and to have a co-worker sculpt a three-dimensional model of Jack Skellington, Nightmare's protagonist. The story was pitched to all three television networks as a potential holiday special. In their infinite wisdom, the networks passed, and Nightmare was shelved until Burton's post-Disney success endowed him with that elusive Hollywood cachet, clout.

That, in a nutshell, is how Jack Skellington made it to the big screen. A spindly, elegant, articulate fellow with a talent for cooking up big scares every year, Jack is bored. "I, Jack the Pumpkin King, have grown so tired of the same old thing," he sighs. Halloweentown and its deformed, mutant residents love him, but Jack's got a restless heart. On the night of his biggest success the dapper ghoul wanders away from the Halloween celebration he orchestrated, lost in thought. By accident, he stumbles into Christmastown, a land of snow and rosy-cheeked tykes and stockings hung by the chimney with care. He returns to Halloweentown with a sack full of purloined Christmas goodies and tries to introduce yuletide customs to his friends and neighbors. But try as they might to humor him, the vampires and the zombies and the oozing cadavers just don't get it.

Nor does Jack, really. To understand the concept better himself, he undertakes a careful scientific analysis. He dissects a teddy bear, attempts to duplicate a snowflake, and charts complex Einsteinian formulas with factors like sugar plums, candy canes, and cookies on a chalk board. The research only serves to stoke Jack's obsession. Meanwhile Sally, a rag doll pieced together by Halloweentown's wheelchair-bound Evil Scientist, has taken a shine to the Pumpkin King. She's more than willing to lend a hand -- or a leg, or any other limb -- to help him.

Jack eventually convinces himself he could do a better job delivering Christmas presents than Santa, so he hatches a plot to kidnap the jolly old soul and take his place. But things don't go as planned for the Pumpkin King who would be Saint Nick -- he faces such challenges as enlisting his canine ghost Zero as a sort of ersatz Rudolph to guide the coffin sleigh and being shot at by anti-aircraft fire. And when Santa falls into the clutches of Oogie Boogie, a vile, iridescent, amorphous bundle of bugs, things look really bad.

But no mere plot synopsis can begin to do this movie justice. Burton's crew of special effects and stop-motion wizards pack every frame with inspired lunacy. They're headed up by director Henry Selick, like Burton a former Disney animator, whose claim to fame was the "Haircut M" campaign which featured a stop-motion creature carving the MTV logo into a red Eraserhead-type hairdo. Selick outdoes himself with Nightmare. At times there is so much going on at once on screen that you can't possibly take it all in. Imagine trying to play ten video games simultaneously superimposed over each other onto a single screen. The anarchic mise en scäne and the wildly original visuals pack a knockout visceral punch; even veteran acid freaks should probably try to sit through the movie straight, at least the first time.

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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