DVD - Image A Sound A
BD - Image A- Sound A+ Extras A-
screenplay by Caroline Thompson, based on a poem by Tim Burton (adaptation by Michael McDowell)
directed by Henry Selick
by Vincent Suarez You know the feeling: too many movies, too little time. You walk down the corridor of your local multiplex, relishing the titles on the marquees and posters, and you know that many will unfortunately have to be seen on home video. If you're lucky, you'll make wise choices, but, occasionally, your home viewing includes that film you regret not seeing theatrically. For me, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (hereafter Nightmare) is one of those films. Having grown weary of Burton's quirkiness after the disappointing Batman Returns, I passed up Nightmare in favour of movies I now cannot recall; what a shame. Fortunately, Touchstone's optical disc presentations of this magnificent film (the previous LaserDiscs and last year's DVD release) provide more than a glimpse of what was surely a wonderful theatrical experience.
Nightmare succeeds on so many levels, it's hard to keep track of them all. The quality of its groundbreaking stop-motion animation is astounding, even inspiring, in creating images that CG animation (i.e., Pixar) has yet to top. While musically a little uneven, composer/lyricist Danny Elfman contributes a grand score and eloquent, often literary, songs. Most pleasingly, these elements are drawn together in service of a narrative that is at once timeless and enchanting, yet so rich in ideas that one is happily pondering its themes long after tucking the disc away.
Although Burton's name appears above the title, Nightmare was directed by former MTV animator Henry Selick, with Burton producing this feature-length adaptation of a poem and some animation work he'd done in his early days at Disney (both of which are included in the extensive supplements for the CAV LaserDisc boxed set). Of course, Burton also lends the film his darkly comic sense of humour. In telling the tale of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, Nightmare presents a vision of each holiday springing forth from its own "town," where the inhabitants spend the entire year preparing for what they do best. The problem is that Jack (voiced by Chris Sarandon and sung by Elfman in tones both fierce and tender that are sure to please even those Oingo Boingo fans ardent in their belief that Elfman "sold out" to cinema) has so mastered Halloween that he's grown weary and is looking for a new challenge. Although he doesn't yet know it, Jack needs a little Christmas, right now.
After a particularly successful Halloween night, Jack strolls through the forest until he comes upon a new place, where the trees are emblazoned with icons of major holidays. (In just a few short moments, here the movie outlines one of its most engaging themes: that each holiday is a sanctioned opportunity to indulge a particular set of passions that, throughout the year, are kept in check by the demands of society.) Delighted and curious, Jack is drawn to the image of a Christmas tree and, upon turning the doorknob beside the image, is blown into Christmastown.
This amazing sequence features the song "What's This?," an enchanting ode to the wonder of new places wherein Jack exclaims, "There's children throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads/they're busy building toys and absolutely no one's dead/what's this?!?" Another of the film's major accomplishments is its stunning art direction and set design, and after spending time amidst the grays and blacks of Halloweentown, Christmastown's array of colours and brightness are beautiful to behold--one can truly understand Jack's astonishment at this new world. Hooked on Christmas, Jack heads home in search of a way to make it part of his experience.
In deciding that the residents of Halloweentown will this year "make Christmas," Jack locks himself away in his castle as he tries to figure out the secrets of the holiday. For me, this is the film's most brilliant and enduring sequence, one that gives full expression to the nature of inquiry. The most cogent of the picture's songs, "Jack's Obsession," includes these lyrics, with which anyone who has been agonizingly, yet wonderfully, puzzled can identify:
Christmastime is buzzing in my skull
Will it let me be? I cannot tell
There's so many things I cannot grasp
When I think I've got it, then at last
Through my bony fingers it does slip
Like a snowflake in a fiery grip...
In these little bric-a-bracs
A secret's waiting to be cracked
These toys and dolls confuse me so...
Confound it all, I love it though!
Ultimately, Jack concludes that the answer is simply to believe in Christmas, and that he could improve Christmas by being its "king," Santa Claus.
Another of the film's virtues is its sweet and simple love story. Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Hara), a rag doll under the oppressive watch of her creator, the Evil Scientist (wickedly performed by the great William Hickey), secretly identifies with Jack's longings. Sally, however, has a vision that Jack's Christmas will go terribly wrong. Indeed, upon kidnapping Santa Claus and delivering well-intended but no less ghoulish gifts to the horrified residents of Christmastown, Jack soon realizes his folly and, with Sally's help, attempts to make Christmas right.
This last act of the film is probably its weakest, due to the unnecessary inclusion of a silly villain, Oogie Boogie, from whom Santa must be saved. It's unfortunate that Burton and writer Caroline Thompson (his Edward Scissorhands scribe) succumbed to this most conventional of Hollywood conventions, for without it Nightmare would have been a purely unique tale...and we would have been spared the film's one musical failure, the awful "Oogie Boogie's Song." Still, the disappointing Oogie is balanced by the sharp-witted depiction of little bits of Halloween running rampant in Christmastown, and by the inspired notion that the residents of Christmastown can be downright vicious when their holiday is violated; Christmastown must have one hell of a defense budget!
Despite repeated viewings, I have lingering problems reconciling what I believe to be the apparent "message" of the film. With Jack having restored Christmas and being reinvested in his role as Pumpkin King ("I just can't wait until next Halloween/cause I've got some new ideas that will really make them scream!"), Nightmare seems to suggest that one should embrace their gifts, and that wandering too far from them might be disastrous. While probably wise advice, I'm not sure it's in keeping with the soul of the film, its spirit of yearning and adventure.
Although adults will likely find it enjoyable and insightful, Nightmare is nevertheless positioned as a children's film--and while this "moral" encourages one to identify and utilize their talents, I wonder whether it also discourages the desire to try new things. Of course, if viewed strictly as a treatise on the holidays and their societal function, this may simply be a reminder that the urges indulged on Halloween are not suited to Christmas! In any event, these are worthwhile questions to consider; and I can't think of a better forum for raising them than the wonderful The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Nightmare was among the first DVDs released late last year by Disney, who at the time were licensing only its Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures product for DVD, preferring to wait until the abomination known as DIVX for its more traditional animated fare. Slightly letterboxed at the preferred ratio of 1.66:1, the image, though non-anamorphic, is spectacular, virtually flawless. (If your DVD player has an animation mode...use it!) The previous LaserDiscs of this film, particularly the three-sided CAV edition, were remarkable, and the DVD format eliminates the occasional dropout (and annoying side-breaks) while providing colours that, in this film, are unbelievably stable and incredibly vivid.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is not dramatically different from the LD's Dolby Pro-Logic track, but there is greater bass response and an occasional split-surround effect (when the hockey-playing vampires whack tiny pumpkin-pucks with their sticks, your rear speakers are in for a treat!); both tracks are excellent. The DVD also includes a 2.0 French track and Spanish subtitles. Disappointingly, despite the wealth of information previously made available in the CAV LaserDisc edition, Disney has seen fit to include only a lame "original theatrical trailer," which in fact is nothing more than a brief "coming to home video" advert that appeared on Disney videocassettes in the months prior to Nightmare's home video debut.
For this Disney must be taken to task, charging premium prices ($29.95 MSRP) and offering less material than the lower-priced special edition discs of Warner/New Line. While I hope the voluminous material included in the LaserDisc boxed set will someday be available on DVD, true fans of the film will find the LD invaluable for studying the film and the DVD essential for a high-quality, uninterrupted screening of the same...preferably sometime between Halloween and Christmas. Originally published: December 15, 1998.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Disney shepherds Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas to Blu-ray in a nice but imperfect presentation. As the song says, "there's colour everywhere," and that aspect of the negligibly-pillarboxed 1.66:1, 1080p transfer is without reproach. Around the 9:50 mark, though, I noticed a box around the omnipresent Halloweentown moon and other seams in the black backdrop, suggesting an overbrightening of purposefully dark elements. Moreover, a slight shimmer to the etched lines of the Edward Gorey-inspired sets during camera moves could indicate the application of DVNR--something borne out by the near-total absence of grain. (Unlike Burton's later stop-motion exercise The Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas was shot in 35mm.) On the plus side, the edge-enhancement that plagued the non-anamorphic DVD(s) has been eradicated, and there's a staggering depth to the image that makes this disc the next best thing to seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3-D.
The 7.1, 24-bit Dolby TrueHD audio, on the other hand, is second to none; though I envy those elite few capable of listening to it in full seven-channel bloom, I found that even compacted to 5.1 it had more intricacy and heft than the still-impressive lossy DD 5.1 alternative. Perfectly in keeping with a film that implies much offscreen life, the mix itself has one of the more aggressive rear soundstages I've encountered. On another track, find a dynamite patchwork commentary from Burton, composer Danny Elfman, and director Henry Selick, the sole (minor) irritation of which is Burton's utter inability to perceive time. (He lumps 1981's The Fox and the Hound and 1985's The Black Cauldron into a singular epoch and repeatedly claims that it took Disney twenty years to greenlight The Nightmare Before Christmas, which would have him pitching the project at around age 13.) Selick amuses with his anecdotes about "tricking" Burton, who was opposed to magic in Halloweentown (Selick convinced him that the prehensile branches Jack walks along were intended to be mechanical), while Elfman opens a window into his process by explaining the urgency with which he commits stray melodies to paper, lest they evaporate or be corrupted by music from another source. Along the way, they cite references to everything from The Threepenny Opera to "The Twilight Zone"--it's really a good yakker.
Video-based supplements begin with "What's This? Jack's Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour" (7 mins., 1080i), a P.O.V. tour of Disney's Haunted Mansion ride--recently refurbished with The Nightmare Before Christmas iconography--complete with a pointlessly-optional trivia track. Next, cementing his status as the heir apparent to Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee recites the original Tim Burton poem that inspired the film over Burton's own concept art, here brought to life in glorious 1080p via the multiplane techniques of The Kid Stays in the Picture. Sally and Oogie Boogie are conspicuously absent from the text, but otherwise this 11-minute holiday special of sorts is a remarkably accurate forecast of the feature film. And nobody doesn't like Christopher Lee.
Burton's early shorts, the live-action Frankenweenie (29 mins., 4:3/480i) and the stop-motion Vincent (6 mins., 4:3/480i), are included in their entirety, the former prefaced with Burton addressing the viewer to officially confirm plans for a feature-length, stop-motion adaptation of Frankenweenie--effectively transforming the movie that follows into a trailer. For what it's worth, I wish they'd subjected these films to remastering in honour of their HiDef debuts; the superior but also the dupier-looking of the two, Vincent, especially, warrants additional TLC. (I've always felt Burton was too self-consciously rattling his Mouse House cage in the Pet Sematary-esque Frankenweenie.) Three "Deleted Storyboard Sequences" (3 mins., 480i) and four "Deleted Animated Sequences" (5 mins., 480i) boast introductory soundbites from Selick, whose summaries of why this shot or that was elided are extraordinarily concise. Selick particularly laments the loss of the "Oogie Boogie Shadow Dance," since it was only cut to prune the movie's length and at 17 seconds hardly would've made a difference. I myself felt vindicated by a storyboarded/never-animated reveal of Oogie Boogie's secret identity, as I thought the narrative was headed in that direction the first time I saw The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Divided into six chapters, "The Making of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (24 mins., 480i) is an above-average if slightly redundant vintage featurette. What struck me about the B-roll (aside from its hype-free assemblage) is how colossal the "sets" were--even the scale model used for demonstration purposes would take up a few slots at a science fair. It's also a real blast from the past to learn that the 2-D ghosts in "This is Halloween" were done by hand, not computer. Rounding out the platter: step-frame design galleries for "The Worlds of" Halloween Town (sic), Christmas Town (sic), and, um, The Real World; a storyboard-to-film comparison for the "Town Meeting Song"; a poster gallery that ignores the artwork prepared for the film's various theatrical reissues; 1993 teaser and theatrical trailers (480i, both) for The Nightmare Before Christmas; and HD "sneak peeks" for Disney Movie Rewards, Tinker Bell, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Disney Parks, On Blu-ray Disc, Sleeping Beauty, Beverly Hills Chihuahua, and WALL·E, the latter two cuing up on startup as well. The second platter in the keepcase is a DVD containing a Digital Copy of the film. Originally published: August 25, 2008.