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Master Manipulator: Tim Burton eyes his holiday puppets, Jack Skellington and Sally.

Skellington Crew

In 'The Nightmare Before Christmas,' filmmakers Tim Burton and Henry Selick proved that Halloween is the best holiday of all

By Richard von Busack

I VISITED THE SET of The Nightmare Before Christmas in the fall of 1992, south of Mission in downtown San Francisco. The warehouse-sized space was the usual maze of particle board, orange cords gaffer-taped to the concrete and a few stray props stashed half out of sight. One thing I saw was a discarded attempt to spell out the title cards of the film in candy corn (no candy is scarier than candy corn). With the blackout curtains and the stenciled wood forming alleys, I had a sense of a space with no right angles. It all looked like a carnival haunted house under construction.

The 20 tabletop sets were small; few were longer than a human arm, and most were about as wide as a king-sized TV set. (Watching The Nightmare Before Christmas on a 26-inch TV, I noted that the images of pretty much all of the puppets were the size they were in real life.) One of the sets--the glowing lair of Oogie Boogie--was filmed under black light. Outside the stage's curtains were signs warning about sunburn and eye damage caused by prolonged exposure to the ultraviolet rays. Before we left, the tour group saw a test reel of Jack Skellington wending his melancholy way through a graveyard. We also heard a sample of some of the songs by Danny Elfman, which seemed, then as now, heavy on the rhyming dictionary.

The animators had computers to check Jack's mouth as the cartoon character enunciated vowel sounds. Some cartoonists had used this computer program to break down, frame by frame, a favorite TV moment: William Shatner's tirade as the evil half of James T. Kirk on Star Trek. They turned these frames into posters, so that the animators could study every twitch of a deathless thespian in the grasp of his muse.

The Nightmare Before Christmas, released in 1993, is returning to theaters for Halloween and being simultaneously released on a much-recommended bell-and-whistle-laden package on DVD ($24.95). The DVD includes Burton's early short films Vincent and Frankenweenie, behind-the-scenes documentaries and interviews with producer Tim Burton and director Henry Selick, who turned Burton's sketches and ideas into a movie. Billing the film as Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is a marketing decision that stints Selick's extremely hard work.

THE FILM is Burton's twist on How the Grinch Stole Christmas ("German Expressionism combined with Dr. Seuss," Burton calls it on one of the DVD interviews.) The jolly, macabre king of Halloween, Jack Skellington, is depressed with the usual routine of rallying Halloween spirit.

On a lonely walk, he discovers the portal to the realm of Christmas, where happiness reigns. ("Absolutely no one's dead!" he exclaims.) He schemes to take over the job of bringing about Christmas. Despite the warnings of the woman who loves him--Sally, a ghoulish version of Raggedy Ann--Skellington follows through with his scheme. Unknown to our hero, the real Santa Claus ends up in the dungeon of the villain of the piece: the Boogie Man, an animated burlap bag full of bugs.

The Nightmare Before Christmas merges Halloween with that other haunted holiday, Christmas. Christmastime often overwhelms people with the memories of long-gone loved ones of lost childhoods--not to mention the powerful, yet somehow unrecognized, effect of living through what seems like the longest night of the year.

Thus people turn to ghost stories like It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol. One could object to The Nightmare Before Christmas as a bid for an extended Christmas season lasting from Oct. 31 to the end of December. The film, however, favors not Yuletide sentiment but the idea of Halloween as the best holiday on the calendar. The happy cadaver Jack, the patchwork Sally busily taking a needle to her sawdust limbs--these are what interest the filmmakers, not the stodgy Santa Claus.

Like a lot of Burton films--Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood--The Nightmare Before Christmas is a film about the perils facing a showman. Skellington attempts to bring about a perfect Christmas, but he's shot down. He faces the defeat with a short period of self-pity, then recovers in a burst of showman's brio.

IN HIS CAREER, Burton's had much more luck than Skellington. His great achievement was to keep the aesthetics of German Expressionism alive. Burton's Batman (1989) was the first box-office smash since the 1940s that looked like it hadn't been made by a committee of cheerleaders.

Unfortunately, directors without Burton's sensitivity and taste for black light and comedy turned murk into a new cliché. But The Nightmare Before Christmas still looks rich and strange--happy proof that a filmmaker's personal obsessions will age better than any decision by committee.

Compare this small classic to the trailers for the soon-to-arrive live-action version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It's hard not to anticipate yet another crude holiday monstrosity retreading ground Burton had already explored long ago (will it be billed as How the Grinch Stole the Nightmare Before Christmas?).

Finally, the film is ammunition for Burton and Selick's argument that stop-motion is superior to computer animation for depicting space, gravity, lighting and texture. Pixar and Palo Alto's own PDI are doing wonders, but they're working in a field that still has a long way to go. The Nightmare Before Christmas' handsome, handmade look is still state of the art nearly a decade after it was made.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (PG; 76 min.), directed by Henry Selick and written by Tim Burton, opens Friday at selected theaters, and is available on DVD from Touchstone Video.

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From the October 26-November 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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