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Tim Burton's ghost in the machine

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Had it been up to Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, the scene would have ended minutes earlier. But there it was, ”Oogie Boogie’s Song,” the spectral showstopper of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, unfurling in all its Day-Glo glory during the movie’s Oct. 9 world premiere at the New York Film Festival. And there was Katzenberg, who’d been notably absent from other promotional efforts for Nightmare, watching in the less-than-capacity crowd as a big, mean, bug-filled burlap sack named Oogie Boogie, not content to bind and taunt Santa Claus in his Vegas-style lair, attaches a hook to Santa’s roped wrists. Cranking a roulette-wheel gear in time with Danny Elfman’s pounding blues, Oogie—who looks like a Ku Klux Klan grand wizard and sounds like Fats Waller—hoists Father Christmas aloft, then croons, ”Youuuu ain’t goinnnn’ noooowhere.”

If Katzenberg and the rest of what Burton has called the ”obsessively perky” Disney organization weren’t quite comfortable with the Boogie man’s torturing Saint Nick, it’s understandable. Nightmare is the company’s animated holiday offering for 1993, and it’s a twisted cousin indeed to the cuddly Disney classics unveiled for Christmases past: The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), and Aladdin (1992). So perhaps the studio chairman found it perversely fitting that a gambling demon is at the heart of Disney’s biggest genre-bending crapshoot since Who Framed Roger Rabbit. And perhaps he was feeling a touch ambivalent about entrusting a master of the macabre with $22 million and unprecedented license to follow his vision for Nightmare, the story of a ”Halloweentown” skeleton who commandeers the yuletide season and gives it a ghoultide flavor.

Not that the studio hasn’t leaned on the willowy auteur—a little—to tone down what one animator calls ”the Santa abuse factor.” ”Yeah, they really wanted that part cut way down,” says Burton, who conceived and produced the stop-motion-animated fable, as well as supervising the look of the characters and sets. In Nightmare prints shown at a few of Disney’s early press screenings, Oogie’s Cab Calloway-inspired vamp was chopped at the halfway mark, just as the camera lurches into his mouth. ”I really liked that whole scene,” says Burton, ”so I put it back in.”

”Final cut and creative autonomy were Tim’s conditions for doing this,” says Burton’s longtime producing partner, Denise Di Novi, who’s also working on his next Disney project, Ed Wood, a black-and-white bio of the schlock filmmaker that Burton is now directing. ”I think Disney was very smart in saying, ‘We’ll get the best out of him if we don’t tamper too much,”’ says Di Novi. ”All his movies have been hits, most of them huge hits. I don’t know any other director in that position. What reason does anyone have not to listen to Tim’s instincts?”

The short answer: Tim’s instincts. This is the man whose last movie, Batman Returns, was widely criticized for putting a malicious edge on a franchise with a sizable kids’ following. So if he has a whim to refashion the Grinch as a pipe cleaner-limbed skeleton with hollow sockets for eyes, why should Disney, of all studios, jump at the idea? ”They’re wooing Tim big-time—this movie and Ed Wood are just carrots,” says one Nightmare crew member. ”Maybe one day he’ll deliver another Batman, though they wouldn’t mind him making more oddball films that make them a ton of money, either.”

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