NEW YORK — IT'S an ironic fact of the movie world that Tim Burton, the master of macabre fantasy who gave us ``Batman'' and ``Beetlejuice'' and ``Edward Scissorhands,'' launched his career at no more sinister a place than Walt Disney Pictures, where he worked on popular animations and made solo shorts including the delightful cartoon ``Vincent.''
Coming full circle, Burton has returned to Disney for ``The Nightmare Before Christmas,'' his first full-length animation. Although it was directed by Henry Selick, another Disney graduate, Burton gets top billing for dreaming up the story and characters, and it certainly reflects his sense of way-out humor.
After a premiere at the New York Film Festival, bestowing a measure of art-film prestige on the picture, it's now arriving in theaters via the Disney studio's Touchstone division, which handles productions too feisty to be festooned with the family-geared Disney name. Parents of very young children should approach the movie with caution, since it contains images and scenes that may be too intense for some youngsters.
The adventure takes place in a make-believe world where every holiday has a kingdom of its own. Jack Skellington is a popular guy in Halloweentown, where skeletons are always in style, but he's looking for new challenges. When he discovers the entrance to Christmastown, he's instantly enchanted by this happy holiday and decides he could make it even merrier than it already is. Needless to say, Halloween and Christmas make a mighty odd couple, and the results of Jack's meddling are appropriately wacky.
``The Nightmare Before Christmas'' is an ingenious marketing commodity for Disney, capitalizing on two photogenic holidays in one lively movie. It also reflects Burton's antic style in a comparatively pure form, through impeccably crafted stop-motion images that amplify the dreamlike aura of his free-form fantasies.
This said, it's also true that ``The Nightmare Before Christmas'' never becomes as clever or captivating as it promises to be. One reason is that cartoons are always cartoons, and they are a big step away from reality, no matter how brilliantly and believably they're drawn.
Burton's last movie, ``Batman Returns,'' was full of impossibly wild visions that carried more conviction than anything in ``The Nightmare Before Christmas'' simply because real people, places, and things were visible behind their delirious facades. Animation is a wonderful medium, but it's almost too compatible with Burton's uninhibited approach. When literally anything goes, even the most original idea can get lost in the creative shuffle.
ANOTHER problem is the filmmakers' decision to tell most of the story through songs instead of spoken dialogue. The music and lyrics by Danny Elfman are sprightly enough, but they're so conventional that they weigh down the movie's flight toward a new and different world.
Caroline Thompson wrote the screenplay for ``The Nightmare Before Christmas,'' working from Michael McDowell's adaptation of Burton's concepts. The cast of off-screen voices includes William Hickey and Paul Reubens, plus Chris Sarandon as Jack's spoken voice and Elfman as his singing voice.
* ``The Nightmare Before Christmas'' has a PG rating. It contains scenes that may be too intense for very young moviegoers.