YOU HAVE TO KEEP YOUR eyes wide open while watching Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. This giddily imaginative stop-motion animation musical is so stuffed with visual delights you won't want to blink. It's Burton's conceit that every holiday has its own country. In Halloweenland, where "Nightmare" is set, a dapper skeleton known as Jack Skellington (a.k.a. the Pumpkin King) presides over an industrious population of ghouls, gremlins and grinches devoted to scaring the bejesus out of children everywhere. But the pumpkin crown hangs heavy on Jack's spindly skull; he's grown weary of fright. There must be something more to life than bat wings and frog's breath soup. And indeed there is: accidentally tumbling through a secret door he lands in snowy, happy Christmastown and his mind is blown. Though he can't quite grasp Christmas's arcane rituals, he knows he must possess it. Rushing home he proclaims his mission: this year Christmas will be brought to the world by the creators of Halloween! Jack means well, but oh, how he gets it wrong.
"Nightmare Before Christmas" means well, too, and thanks to the painstaking skill of director Henry Selick (working from Burton's concept), gets it deliciously right. Tightly written by Caroline Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands") and propelled by the clever lyrics and Kurt Weillish music of Danny Elfman, this cautionary fable (Be True to Your Ghoulish Self) may be a little too twisted for little kids but anyone 8 or older will spot the friendly glint behind jack's empty eye sockets. And anyone with any knowledge of the rigors of stop-motion (in which three-dimensional figures are shot frame by frame, requiring 24 infinitesimal changes of position to achieve one seamless second of live-action movement) will recognize that the movie takes this old technique to fluid new heights.
Among the inspired characters: the ominous beanbaglike monster Oogie Boogie, who performs a rousing Cab Calloway-style number. A rag-doll heroine named Sally, who matter-of-factly sews herself back together when she loses an arm or a leg. A duckbilled evil scientist in a wheelchair with a flip-top head allowing him to scratch his brains for inspiration. The list of marvels could go on and on, testament to the teeming imagination of Burton, who dreamed up this treat more than a decade ago as a young animator at Disney. Now, back at Disney, his magic toyshop of a movie has come to sweetly malignant fife. Chances are, it will be around for many Halloweens to come.