Tim Burton is not only headed back to Warner Bros. to direct the sequel to his mega-hit "Batman." He will also return to Disney, where he got his professional start as an animator, to produce an animated feature, "The Nightmare Before Christmas."

The storyline: A skeleton tries to take over Christmas, because it gets more attention than his holiday - Halloween.

The longtime Burton project had its inception at Disney in the early '80s, when Burton made his directorial debut with the five-minute Disney puppet-animated film "Vincent," about a 7-year-old boy who dreams of being Vincent Price.

According to sources, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" was originally deemed "too weird"and put on the back burner by the studio. In the years since, Burton's offbeat oeuvre has proven commercially viable, with titles such as "Beetlejuice" and the current "Edward Scissorhands." A Disney spokeswoman also confirmed that the studio is exploring the possibility of finally releasing Burton's "Frankenweenie." Made in 1984, the 30-minute live-action short is about a young boy who brings his dog back to monstrous life after it's been struck by a car.

"Because of its running time and its subject," the spokeswoman says, "we can't attach it to just any title." - PAT H. BROESKE

- Composer Kept His `Eyes on the Prize':

HOLLYWOOD - "No matter how hopeless the situation, you can't give up," says composer Harry Stewart, 27, until recently a member of New York City's homeless community.

Stewart was in the right place - a New York subway station - at the right time . . . when director Peter Weir was looking for street musicians to provide music for his current movie, "Green Card."

Stewart got the job - and his life changed.

Not only was he paid well for composing and performing his spirited song "Eyes on the Prize" - which Touchstone has submitted for Oscar consideration - Stewart is currently cleaning up some bad habits in a Phoenix rehab center.

The "beautiful, haunting" voices that Weir says he heard in the subway were those of Stewart and his Emmaus The Group singers, which Stewart had organized while living at Harlem's Emmaus House for the homeless.

After Stewart inquired about the film's storyline - a man and woman pretend to be married for individual reasons, then fall in love - he composed the song especially for the film. Then he surprised Weir with it when the group auditioned in Central Park.

As soon as he heard it, Weir says, he knew he wanted it - as a parable for the seemingly insurmountable obstacles faced by the film's two main characters, played by Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell.

"The song throws the message to the audience to keep your eyes on the prize," Weir says. "There's a lot of hopelessness in the world. . . . Yes, it's just a movie, but it gives you hope."

Before his lucky break, Stewart says, he was "throwing his faith away," a lyric from another of his songs. "That's what I was doing. I became homeless and I stayed that way because of an addiction to drugs.

"I got the inspiration from seeing the homeless. If I encourage one person who is homeless, then I've done something." - DAVID J. FOX

- Feat of Clay:

HOLLYWOOD - When the trailer begins - a shot of the familiar jukebox, strains of "Unchained Melody," the potter's throwing wheel - audiences figure it's yet another "Ghost" campaign.

When the camera pans to bare-chested Leslie Nielsen nuzzling Priscilla Presley as she shapes wet clay - instead of Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore - they laugh.

And when the wet clay spins wildly off the wheel, splattering the smooching lovers, audiences know they've been had.

"Naked Gun" has struck again.

This time, it is the trailer for "Naked Gun II1/2: The Smell of Fear," which carries the line: "From the brother of the director of `Ghost.' "

Jerry Zucker, of course, directed that Paramount mega-hit. David Zucker directs "Naked Gun II1/2," due out this summer.

Zucker II conceived the spoofy trailer - along with producer Robert K. Weiss and associate producer Bob Locash - in early December when Paramount gave them the sudden opportunity to attach it to reels of "Godfather III" when it was released at Christmas.

The parody of the famous wet clay scene from "Ghost" - already scripted for the film - was shot over a weekend and "edited very quickly," Weiss says.

How many takes did Nielsen and Presley take to get it right?

"I don't know," Weiss says, "but they got pretty muddy."

They'll get muddy again: The scene will be reprised later this month for inclusion in the film. - JOHN M. WILSON

- Cleaned Up `Sea':

HOLLYWOOD - For its Feb. 5 airing of the steamy murder mystery "Sea of Love," CBS is making much about new scenes that didn't make the 1989 theatrical cut.

Not being mentioned in CBS' publicity material: scenes in the theatrical release that won't be seen in the network airing.

The film's producer, as well as a CBS spokesman, acknowledge that the R-rated "Sea of Love" went through the obligatory network trims - especially in regard to the ultra-hot love scene between Al Pacino and a nude Ellen Barkin.

"But those trims don't hurt us at all," producer Martin Bregman insists. "This is still a sexy film - because the sexuality came through in the entire relationship (between Pacino and Barkin), not just that one scene."

The added material - "footage we always liked, and wanted to use," says Bregman - was originally left out because "the studio wanted the film to be tighter."

The new scenes come early in the new cut, and show Pacino's character to be "a cop who's on the edge." - PAT H. BROESKE

- Quibbles & Bits:

- Known for his offbeat fare ("Down by Law," "Stranger Than Paradise"), filmmaker Jim Jarmusch has finished shooting his latest - untitled - film in Helsinki, Paris and Rome, with still-to-be-filmed segments set here and in New York. Winona Ryder and Gena Rowlands are among those in "the international cast."

- Family ties: The music for Steve Martin's latest film, "L.A. Story" - due Feb. 5 - is by Peter Melnick, whose "credits" include being the son of Dan Melnick, the film's producer.

- Aiello & Son:

HOLLYWOOD - After making three films with dear old dad - Danny Aiello - Rick Aiello gets to play his son in their fourth teaming, "The Closer," due to open here and in New York Feb. 15.

"It was great," says Rick, 30, of working with his dad. "Because he's my father, it allows me to watch him, and ask stupid questions. I can trust him. I wouldn't be able to learn as much if he wasn't my father."

Rick came to Los Angeles three years ago to pursue his acting career, inspired by his father's success. As he had in New York, he worked as a bouncer (he's 6-2 and nearly 200 pounds), bartender and club manager, also appearing in "Streets of Gold," "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and other films that called for his street-savvy manner and a gravelly voice reminiscent of his dad's.

The two appeared together in "Do the Right Thing," "Harlem Nights" and "29th Street," an Italian family comedy-drama due out later this year from 20th Century Fox.

In "The Closer," from Ion Pictures, the senior Aiello stars as a wealthy businessman who is expert at closing a deal but has neglected his family relationships in pursuit of success. He's haunted by visionary visitations from his dead son, played by Rick.

There were moments between them during shooting, Rick says, "that were just like deja vu, conversations we've had in real life. And there were little nuances that would only happen between a father and son."

Rick has three other features due out in 1991 and just co-starred in a CBS pilot, "Knights of the Kitchen Table," for producer Gary David Goldberg.

"It feels like this is my year," he says. - JOHN M. WILSON

- Life After `Wolves' - A Tale of Two Actors:

HOLLYWOOD - For the two actors who won widespread critical praise for their prominent American Indian roles in "Dances With Wolves," the impact has been decidedly different.

One is sifting through "dozens" of scripts, sounds beleaguered by the hoopla and avoids political questions related to the film, which depicts the near-destruction of the Indian nation from its viewpoint. The other is having trouble finding work and paying his bills - but feels reborn as a Native American activist.

Graham Greene, the veteran Canadian actor who portrayed the peaceful, spiritual Kicking Bird, works fairly steadily: a feature in Canada, "Clearcut," filmed last fall; a role as a lawyer on "L.A. Law," just completed; a play lined up in the spring.

Orion's "Dances With Wolves," he concedes, "was certainly the biggest film I've done. It's made definite changes in my life - I'm more popular with the media, scripts are being offered to me from people I've never heard of. On the other hand, I'm being inundated. It's good in a way. I shouldn't complain." Greene says that he is proud of his performance and the "overall effort" of star-director-producer Kevin Costner, but is clearly uncomfortable with the soapbox.

"Everybody's getting political on me," says the recently married Greene, who has portrayed characters ranging from Jewish to Latin to Cajun during his 16 years on stage and screen. "I tell them to take those questions to the politicians.

"I'm sort of a passive activist."

Not Rodney Grant, who played fierce warrior Wind in His Hair.

"It changed my life - it really projected me to the forefront," says the ex-Marine and father of two, who lives in Albuquerque with his wife, Ka-Mook. He has been busy promoting the film and speaking on Native American issues across the country, including the recent Palm Springs Film Festival. "Just last night, someone said it's made me an ambassador of Native Americans."

While he will be seen in two upcoming movies - ABC's "Son of the Morning Star" and Oliver Stone's "The Doors" - Grant believes that featured roles in hit films mean more to white actors than to American Indians.

"I'm looking for work," says Grant, who grew up on the Omaha Tribal Reservation. "The biggest misconception is that since `Dances With Wolves,' I'm rich. We got nothing of the (profits)."

About to leave for Europe to continue promoting the film, Orion covers only his expenses.

"It's very hard - I have a family to feed," he says. His dream is to work full-time as an actor. "But it's not possible, especially for a Native American. The roles just aren't there for us.

"You'd starve." - JOHN M. WILSON

- Cinefile:

HOLLYWOOD - William Hurt will portray a doctor battling a plague in an unnamed Latin American city in a present-day adaptation of Albert Camus' 1947 novel "The Plague." Luis Puenzo will direct his own screenplay, which will start shooting in July outside Buenos Aires. The film will be produced by Jonathan Prince, John Pepper and their French co-partner CFC.

Lena Olin will star in "The Innocent," which Ian McEwan will adapt from his own novel. Olin plays the German lover of a sexually inexperienced British electronics expert in this Cold War drama set in 1955. Produced by Norma Heyman and directed by Jon Amiel, the production gets underway in Canada and Germany next month.

Kim Basinger is in negotiations with Mainline Productions to replace Madonna in "Boxing Helena," which Jennifer Lynch writes-directs.

Adrian Pasdar and John Lone star in "Shanghai 1920," an independent production currently shooting in there. Directed by Puchi Leone and written by Timothy Long, the action-drama tells of boyhood friends - an American and a Chinese - who become involved in the Chinese Mafia.

Grandview Avenue Pictures' "Nervous Picks," getting underway in Los Angeles in mid-February, will feature Bill Pullman and Julie Brown. David Frankel's script, a comedy about a guy who has two hours to catch an airplane, will be told in real time. Rocky Lang will direct for producer Arthur Goldblatt.

D.B. Sweeney and Moira Kelly will star in MGM-Pathe's "The Cutting Edge," an ice-skating drama to be directed by Paul Michael Glaser. The film, written by Tony Gilroy, will be produced by Cynthia Sherman and Interscope. The start date is still undetermined.

Wil Wheaton, Balthazar Getty, Brian Krause, Jason London and Chris Young are set for IRS Media's "December," a drama about boys in a New England prep school, who must decide whether to go to war on the snowy night after Pearl Harbor. Gabe Torres directs his own script, beginning Jan. 23, in New York and Los Angeles Paul Colichman and Miles Copeland serve as executive producers.

Newcomer Heidi Kling has landed the female lead opposite Matthew Broderick in Universal's surreal comedy "Welcome to Buzzsaw," now shooting here and in Santa Cruz, Calif. French director Francis Veber is directing a script by twin brothers Joshua and Daniel Goldin. (Jeffrey Jones plays twin psychotic villains in the film.) - KIRK HONEYCUTT

- The Movie Chart:

Films going into production:

BUGSY SIEGEL (Tri-Star). Shooting in Los Angeles. In Barry Levinson's follow-up to "Avalon," Warren Beatty plays the womanizing, flamboyant Las Vegas gangster who ended up with a bullet in his head in a Beverly Hills mansion. Producer Mark Johnson. Screenwriter James Toback. Winter release.

BEYOND THE CALL OF Duty (Concorde). Shooting in the Philippines and Los Angeles. Jan-Michael Vincent leads a team of haggard Vietnam soldiers who are heading down the river of freedom but are suddenly summoned back to rescue a group of imperiled Amerasian children. Producer-director Ciro Santiago. Screenwriter T.C. McKelvey.

BORN JAUNDICED (tentative title) (Imagine Films). Shooting in Florida. Dan Aykroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, "Home Alone's" Macauley Culkin and Anna Chlumsky head this tale of a young girl who confronts her fears about death. Executive producers David Friendly and Joseph Caracciolo. Producer Brian Grazer. Director Howard Zieff. Screenwriter Laurice Elehwany. Distributor Columbia.

GLADIATOR (Columbia). Shooting in Chicago. James Marshall, Cara Buono, Brian Dennehy, Robert Loggia, Ossie Davis and Cuba Gooding topline this story of a young Irish kid who must fight, literally, to save his family's honor. Producer Steve Roth. Director Rowdy Herrington. Screenwriters Nick Kazan (Elia's son) and Lyle Kessler ("Orphans").