A lot of ink has spilled over director Tim Burton lately in the wake of his latest release, Sleepy Hollow. Reviews are mixed, of course, just as they often are for Burton's films. But this time out, it seems critics are no longer referring to the director's constant sense of wonder, which is a shame. If Burton has one absolute and distinctive quality, it's just that: He's sentimental but wise, warm but creepy, eccentric but heartfelt. From his obscure quasi-debut Frankenweenie through Edward Scissorhands to Ed Wood, Burton has established himself (unwittingly, perhaps) as one of Hollywood's most charmingly off-center gems.
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And Burton seems to have crafted that sense of wonder in tandem with his holiday fixation: birthdays, Halloween, and, mostly, Christmas. Most of his films touch on some aspect of this mega-celebration, in his characteristically darkened yet loving way. Batman Returns kicks off with a Gothic Christmas, Edward Scissorhands climaxes at Christmastime, and so on. But he eventually set his sights on an all-out homage to Yuletide, and especially all the great animated specials surrounding the season, and in 1993 he released the brilliant and fascinating The Nightmare Before Christmas. Of all his films, it is perhaps the most epitomizing of Burton's aesthetic roots. He was, after all, initially trained as a Disney animator. Nightmare, filmed by roughly the same method as all those stop-action Christmas specials, both pays homage to and one-ups an entire tradition. It trips along on its own cheerful, spiky energy, and despite its inherent sweetness, it never leaves a saccharine aftertaste. After all, what's Burton without some brooding atmosphere?
Sunday the Dallas Museum of Art will screen The Nightmare Before Christmas as part of its O'Donnell film series, and that's quite a windfall in this era of increasingly insulting Christmas specials. Granted, the tale of three Halloween kids kidnapping Santa to stop Christmas from coming isn't exactly Bing Crosby-innocent, but it's still one of the most intelligent, witty, and beautifully crafted of all Christmas-themed features, and best on a big screen. Any artist who can remind us of our own sense of wonder without offending our intelligence is a gift indeed.
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