An Animation Dream -- `Nightmare Before Christmas' Is Visual Treat, But It Lacks Vision

Movie review

XXX "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas," animated feature with the voices of Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara. Directed by Henry Selick, from a script by Caroline Thompson. Alderwood, Crossroads, Factoria, Metro, Oak Tree, Renton Village, Seatac Mall Cinemas. "PG" - Parental guidance advised because of subject matter. -------------------------------------------------------------------

Visually a macabre knockout, this 75-minute fantasy boasts some of the wittiest, most vigorous stop-motion animation effects in the history of the process.

Originally conceived in the early 1980s as a 30-minute TV special, it's been expanded by screenwriter Caroline Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands," "The Secret Garden") into a mock epic in which the year-end holiday universe, balanced so carefully between the darkness of Halloween and the radiance of Christmas, comes unglued.

The source of all the trouble is Jack Skellington, a madcap ghoul who runs Halloweentown, a place devoted to creating a bigger, better and scarier Oct. 31 each year. Also known as "The Pumpkin King," Jack has grown ambitious. One holiday is no longer enough.

After a chance visit to Christmastown, he decides to kidnap Santa Claus ("Consider this a vacation"), take his own skeletal reindeer on a Christmas Eve ride and drop booby-trap toys down chimneys. Frightened children awake to find creepy-crawlies wandering around and even devouring their Christmas trees.

All of this is presented quite innocently. Jack is actually pretty nice for a ghoul. He's just a misguided artist who wants to blend the best of both holidays, and he can't see why it won't work. "Why does nothing ever turn out as it should?" he wonders as he realizes that everything he's done is inappropriate and unappreciated.

Propelled by Danny Elfman's rambunctious score, the characters dart about frantically, announcing their intentions in such production numbers as "Kidnap the Sandy Claws" and "Oogie Boogie's Song," which is sung by a demon who wants to add Santa to his snake stew. Under Henry Selick's direction, the movie often seems a little hurried and unhinged; perhaps he's trying to camouflage the fact that there's not quite enough of a story to tell.

Tim Burton's name is prominently displayed everywhere in the publicity for this Disney release - he even gets a possessive credit in the official title - even though he didn't write or direct it. This was, of course, true of Walt Disney's own projects, and it's usually true of John Hughes and George Lucas.

In a New York Times interview, Burton said he lacks the patience for this technology (it would have "put me in the nut house by now"). Yet he's established such a distinctive style that no other filmmaker can quite fill his shoes.

There's a distance here that you don't find in such highly personal Burton classics as "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Frankenweenie," which Disney produced in the early 1980s, around the same time Burton was developing this project there. Maybe it's just that stop-motion makes it difficult to sustain a vision.

If "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is not quite the holiday-bridging classic it was intended to be, however, it is certainly something to see. In the annals of stop-motion animation, it's right up there with "King Kong" and the work of Will Vinton and Ray Harryhausen.