A lifelike 'Nightmare' to remember

October 22, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

The best thing about "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" is that at no time in it do you think, "Hey. This movie's about a lot of little sticks."

But it is. It's little stick men and women being manipulated a millimeter at a time, with the patience of Job and the earnestness of George McGovern, over a long two years in a basement somewhere and photographed frame by frame so that when the film is run at normal speed, they all look like they're

alive -- sort of.

"Nightmare Before Christmas" is a return to the herky-jerky glories of the stop-motion animation that gave us a mid-century decade's worth of monsters tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York or doing the hoochie-coochie with the Golden Gate Bridge -- but this is stop motion like you've never seen before.

What's mind-boggling about the film is the complexity of the imagery and the density of reactive elements in the frame. By that rather portentous sentence I mean that there's not merely one big thing moving on the screen (like a monster), but dozens, all reacting to each other with a truly dazzling repertoire of facial movement, eyeball dilation, attitude, character. The second mind-boggler is that the creatures move with distinct animal or human rhythms: They're fluid, elastic, graceful, unique and actually freed from that creaky tremor that was the hallmark of '50s and '60s stop motion. The overall illusion of life its own self, in a very weird universe, is quite convincing; you're watching stick men and women who can act!

Despite the macabre Burton's name in the title as a guarantor of commercial viability and a front man for the publicity campaign, the film was directed by Henry Selick, a long-time Disney specialist in such matters. Still, the creative vision is Burton's, for the story appears to be a parable of taste representative of the drama of Burton's own life, as it argues out a conflict between mainstream and offbeat cultural sensibilities. In other words, it's another kind of first: an autobiography in stick men!

The Pumpkin King of Halloweentown is unhappy. For a stick man, he has quite a well-developed tragic dimension, given to fits of brooding melancholy like a Poe character. Lean as a cancer victim, graceful as Oscar Wilde with consumption, dapper as Beau Brummell, both Edwardian and a corpse, he has in style what he lacks in flesh. Named Jack Skellington, and lord of an impish realm of haunts and goblins, some quite amusingly created, he feels that the spice of death has vanished.

In his roamings, however, he bumbles into Christmastown. The conceit here is quite amusing, that these holidays, disconnected from a historical past, occupy adjacent lands in the small universe of someone's -- Burton's? -- unconscious. Anyway, in Christmastown -- it looks like the old downtown department store Christmas extravaganzas, also a '50s phenomenon -- he sees lights, happiness, joy and, the symbol of it all, Santa Claus. Being essentially barbaric, he decides to kidnap the Claus man and bring him to Halloweentown; in his stead, Jack will go a-presenting on Christmas night.

This leads, of course, to Burton's ultimate secret fantasy, which is the subversion of Christmas, that most bourgeoise and capitalist of holidays, by his own darker impulses. Jack's Christmas is a grisly parody of the soft and fluffy thing we all expect. He gives out, among other grisly souvenirs from the land of the dead, shrunken heads for presents and pretty much nukes the phony-sentimental spirit of the holiday.

What undercuts both the story and the notion is that -- of course! -- Burton can't let his subversive impulses play hob without some counterbalance. So in the end the movie goes soft as a noodle. The role of villain transmigrates from Jack to an Evil Scientist and, by the same commercial alchemy, Jack becomes a hero, trying to rescue old Saint Nick from this bad fellow who's busy applying the cattle-prod treatment to the jolly old gent with the bowl full of jelly for a belly (but . . . you ought to see that belly quiver though, when the voltage hits it, heh heh heh!)

Macabre and astonishing, "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" is a brilliant piece of technology, perhaps undercut a bit by the insincerity of its story and the blood-and-thunder music of Danny Elfman (every single piece he writes sounds like every other single piece he writes). But nasty kids and bored parents should love it.

"Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas"

Animated

Directed by Henry Selick

Released by Disney

Rated PG

***

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