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Nightmare displays spectacular animation

The Nightmare
Before Christmas
Directed by Henry Selick.
Written by Tim Burton
and Caroline Thompson.
Music by Danny Elfman.
Loews Harvard Square.

By Joshua M. Andresen
Associate Arts Editor

Although several Christmas movies are put out every year, Halloween movies are a rarity. This year, however, fans of the spooky and the scary are in for a treat as well as a few tricks with Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The animation of this film is incredible, as are the characters, though sadly this level of excellence is not matched in the writing and the music.

Set in a land where each holiday has its own world, Nightmare gives the account of Jack Skellington, the leader of Halloweentown. Tired of exporting Halloween every year to the ``real'' world, Jack wanders through the forest with his ghost dog Zero searching inwardly for a new direction. As he broods, he stumbles into Christmastown, where he is enraptured by the colors and the joy and everything else he sees. He decides a career change for him is in order as he starts making plans to deliver Christmas this year. His plan includes kidnapping ``Sandy Claws'' so that he himself may deliver all the toys made for him by the ghouls and goblins in Halloweentown. Unfortunately, his good intentions do not translate into a successful Christmas, as the toys delivered are perhaps more appropriate for the naughty than the nice. This is further complicated by the fact that the Evil Oogie-Boogie wants to eat poor Mr. Claus for dinner. In the end, though, all works out and Christmas is saved.

The most striking feature of this film is the impeccable animation. The movements of the extremely lank Skellington are impossibly smooth as he dances across the screen in his fits of jubilation. Indeed, the graceful movements of Fred Astaire were studied in the choreographing of Skellington's steps. The range of facial expressions for the puppet Jack is also staggering. The number of heads created for him numbered almost 800 through the production of the film.

The breadth of the project is impressive as well. The film casts 74 individual characters, and the various scenes employ as many as several dozen puppets, each moving fluidly and independently. It is easy to forget at times that Nightmare was painstakingly filmed in stop-motion, with fourteen animators producing only 60 seconds of animation in a full week's work.

Tim Burton's characters is the aspect that makes this film truly entertaining. Skellington's naive ebullience endears the audience to him even through his blunders. Leading lady Sally is a patchwork doll/bride of Frankenstein who patiently tries to win Jack's affection while trying to keep him from going to far in his attempt to take Christmas over. The Evil Scientist, Sally's creator, is happy to help Jack out in creating his reindeer, bringing some bags of bones to life with appropriate jolts of electricity. The Evil Scientist's voice is very appropriately provided by William Hickey, best known for his portrayal of crime boss Corrado Prizzi in Prizzi's Honor. His gravelly voice lends the perfect effect to his twisted character. Lock, Shock, and Barrel are the worst trick-or-treaters this side of Eastertown, and are the henchmen Jack sends to kidnap Santa. Their mischievous tricks are a delight to watch, if somewhat cruel. These three are responsible for delivering Santa to Oogie-Boogie, the king of the boogymen who is so bad that even in Halloweentown he has to live underground.

The artistry in the puppets is also very nicely done. The various characters in Halloweentown are appropriately grotesque, from the seaminess of Jack's smile to the ghoul whose face is perpetually bubbling to the slithering contents that make up Oogie-Boogie's stuffing. All of this is quite fitting for a Halloween film.

Unfortunately, neither Caroline Thompson's screenplay nor Danny Elfman's score are particularly impressive. Though the characters are wonderful, the plot lacks twists of any kind. The plot moves straight ahead, plodding along to the inevitable conclusion. Several side themes might have been explored, but were ignored instead.

The original music and lyrics by Danny Elfman were not so inspired, either. Though the slow and somber melodies and minor tonalities may be appropriate to a Halloween movie, the incessant use of similar motives is none the less boring. Fortunately for Elfman, the excellent animation saves the musical scenes with the inspired choreography.

Despite the flaws, Nighmare remains a very entertaining film. The hilarious scenes of the children opening their Halloweentown toys are worth the price of admission by themselves, and the scene in which Oogie-Boogie sings his song to Santa Claus under a blacklight (a powerful effect) is exceptional as well. Quite the ``treat'' for Halloween.