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The Concept: Jack-o'-Santa : Tim Burton's new movie for Disney isn't exactly a steal-Christmas-kind-of-thing. It's more like a borrow-it-and-give-it-a-weird-twist-kind-of-thing

October 10, 1993|BLAISE SIMPSON | Blaise Simpson is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco

"Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" is different from the Walt Disney Studios' previous animated movies in just about every way. Where they were cute, "Nightmare" owes its arty pizazz more to German Expressionism than to Mickey Mouse. Where they dazzled the eye with color, "Nightmare's" subdued palette showcases texture and depth. Where they featured Broadway-style show tunes, "Nightmare" has a musical score that's more "Three Penny Opera" than "Zip-a-Dee Doo-Dah." Where their humor was ingenuous and their protagonists warm and cuddly, "Nightmare" has an off-center, adult wit and some truly grotesque creations.

The film's most important difference is the animation itself. "Nightmare" is not a cartoon. Instead of drawings, its characters are three-dimensional articulated figures that move and emote like live actors, thanks to a process called stop-motion animation. Stop-motion is best known from commercials--think Speedy Alka Seltzer or the Pillsbury Doughboy and you've got the idea.

But the level of stop-motion animation in the 72-minute "Nightmare" has never been attempted before. Only George Pal, a stop-motion pioneer who produced a series of shorts called "Puppetoons" for Paramount in the late '40s, came close in terms of innovation. Pal's technique of substituting different faces and limbs on characters in each frame of film to give them more streamlined movement has been borrowed and expanded upon by the "Nightmare" crew.

Burton, the creator and producer of the movie, talked about it early one morning on the set of his latest picture, "The Ed Wood Story."

What possessed the studio to take such a leap of faith on "Nightmare Before Christmas"? The answer slouches--rumpled, yawning, trying to wake up--on a couch in the director's trailer. With his unruly mop of black hair, wrinkled clothes and long striped Pippi Longstocking socks, Burton looks like an overgrown illustration from a children's book. Who better to lead Disney into a different style of animation?

In fact, "Nightmare Before Christmas" began at the studio more than 10 years ago, long before Burton became the director of such box-office bonanzas as "Beetlejuice," "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands" and "Batman Returns." At that time, he was still toiling as an apprentice in Disney's animation department and had just made his first film, a six-minute short about a 7-year-old who reads Edgar Allen Poe and wants to be Vincent Price. "Vincent," one of Burton's most personal films, used stop-motion animation, and it inspired the filmmaker to write and design a more ambitious story.

For Burton, who had been a lonely child growing up in Burbank, holidays were a time of wonder and escape. "Anytime there was Christmas or Halloween, you'd go to Thrifty's and buy stuff and it was great," he recalls. "It gave you some sort of texture all of a sudden that wasn't there before."

With his favorite children's TV special, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (also made with crude stop-motion techniques), and other holiday literature in mind, Burton wrote and drew illustrations for his own rhyming television classic. Stimulated by Clement Clarke Moore's traditional holiday poem, he added a twist: this time, "Twas the night mare before Christmas. . . ."

Although as a movie it has been embellished--it is now a musical, with a lush score by Danny Elfman, the Oingo Boingo musician who has created music for Burton's five previous films, and a script by Carolyn Thompson, who wrote "Edward Scissorhands"--the basic story is still much the same as Burton's original tale.

In a world where all the holidays have their own kingdoms, the elegantly tall king of Halloween Jack Skellington is a tormented artist who is bored with putting on the same old holiday each year. One day, Jack stumbles into Christmastown and is captivated by the bright colors and happiness of the place. He rushes back to tell the ghoulish citizens of Halloweentown that they will produce Christmas this year. They're excited by the idea but a little unclear on the concept, and of course they get it all wrong. Pandemonium ensues after Santa Claus is kidnaped and little children all over the world wake up to find nasty presents, gleefully created by the Halloweenies, under their Christmas trees.

Elfman voiced all the parts as he wrote the music, and in the process, became so fond of Jack Skellington that he remains his singing voice in the film. (Actor Chris Sarandon does Jack's speaking voice.) Catherine O'Hara, who had worked with Burton on "Beetlejuice," did the voice of Sally, Jack's rag-doll girlfriend. William Hickey ("Prizzi's Honor") was cast as the voice of Sally's creator, a mad scientist. Two other voices, a two-faced mayor and a naughty trick-or-treater, were supplied by past Burton collaborators Glenn Shadix ("Beetlejuice") and Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-wee Herman).

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