There's a new Santa Claus in town, and if you're lucky your Christmas gifts could include a hungry snake or a severed, shrunken head.

Welcome to THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, producer Tim Burton's animated, musical vision of a world where skeletons are considered handsome and spiders tasty. Working within the relatively obscure techniques of stop-motion animation (by which puppets are manipulated, one frame at a time, to

create the illusion of movement), Burton and director Henry Selick have pulled off a spectacular visual coup, revolving around a character known as Jack the Pumpkin King. Frustrated with the limitations of his native Halloweentown, which is peopled by assorted macabre types and presided over by a

(literally) two-faced mayor, Jack tries to conquer neighboring Christmastown, where the nice people live.

NIGHTMARE betrays almost demonic powers of invention, every frame crammed with eye-catching (and frequently eyebrow-raising) detail. It's also appealing to the ears, courtesy of Danny Elfman's infectious, amusing songs. Yet the richness of the canvas only draws our attention to the weakness of

the narrative. Burton seems to waver between rooting for the scary guys and the cuddly ones, and his indecision makes it hard for us to respond on an emotional level. The result, though refreshingly different from mainstream animated fare, is ultimately more trick than treat.