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‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ (PG)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 22, 1993

If Christmas is in jeopardy, if Santa Claus is being forcibly prevented from his annual duties, you can be sure the kids will pay attention. And since Tim Burton's animated fantasy, "The Nightmare Before Christmas," is such a state-of-the-art wonder show, you can be sure the adults will be engaged too.

This brilliant combination of stop-motion animation, three-dimensional sets and superbly imaginative graphics, brings animation to new peaks. Burton, whose inventive, delightfully haunted mind put so much zest into "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Beetlejuice," "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands," has done it again.

Here's the story: Jack Skellington, Halloweentown's Pumpkin King, is bored with his annual duties -- arranging the usual scares and surprises for Halloween. When he chances upon Christmastown, a far cry from his own world, Jack decides he can run this tinselly convention himself. After boning up on things Christmas (he even tries to study the holiday in algebraic terms), Jack dons a white beard and red coat, harnesses a team of ghostly reindeer and heads for the rooftops of the world. While Jack does the yuletide rounds, his pumpkin townsfolk hold the real (and thoroughly disconsolate) Santa prisoner.

Concerned parents can be assured that, ultimately, things will be put right. Jack will realize who really ought to be stuffing himself down these chimneys, and that you're supposed to give presents that charm -- not petrify -- the children.

Speaking of scaring kids, it's hard to assess how the very young will receive this. To this grown-up reviewer, Jack and his Halloweentown collection of strange friends are oddly charming, from the (literally) two-faced mayor to the trick or treat trio called Lock, Shock and Barrel. And when he delivers icky presents to children (such as a severed head, or a striped snake that swallows Christmas trees), Jack (with whom the viewer identifies) is genuinely unaware of his transgressions. If Jack's a bad skeleton, he's an innocently bad skeleton.

The best thing about "Nightmare," obviously, is its visual world and -- behind that -- 10 great songs composed by Danny Elfman (who collaborated with Burton for "Batman" and also wrote the theme tune for "The Simpsons"). Burton, a graduate of the Disney factory (he worked on "The Black Cauldron," among many films, and made a memorable short called "Frankenweenie"), fills the movie with unforgettable compositions: Jack's poetic posings against the moon, for one thing, are aesthetically stunning.

Burton also creates Grimmly personable characters. Jack is a mischievous, skeletal Beau Brummell in his pin-striped, spider-webbed suit. His faithful dog Zero is actually the ghost of a dog with a glowing, jack-o'-lantern nose. Jack's love interest, Sally, is a rag doll who can disengage her body parts at will by picking the thread that holds her together.

With Burton, there's a sense of a bad-boy genius at work, as if Oscar Wilde had been raised on E.T.A Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm and the expressionistic German films of the prewar period such as "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." He never raises his work above the heads of children -- which is true of all his work. He pulls adult minds down to the surreal darkness of childish imagination -- where the real nightmares are. But through Burton's eyes, these dark dreamscapes aren't bad places at all. In fact, they're quite wonderful.

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