But I never intended all this madness, never, and nobody really understood, how could they? That all I ever wanted was to bring them something great! Why does nothing ever turn out like it should?
I’ve already had the opportunity to review this film once with Disney’s original release. Now I have the chance to review a “special edition” release. For all but die-hard fans of either Tim Burton or of the film itself, it’s a tough sell. Disney chose not to do a new anamorphic transfer, so some people see it as a waste of money to replace the version they already have on their shelves. Others see their decision as a boycott of Disney’s less-than-optimal offerings. I can see their point, but on the other hand I think you’re only hurting yourself if you don’t pick up this new version of The Nightmare Before Christmas. I hope I can make a clear case.
Tim Burton’s career in Hollywood began with a stint as an animator at Disney. For those of you who think that must’ve been a fun or easy job, let me put it in perspective. Films run at roughly 24 frames per second. For your average full-length animated feature, that’s over 100,000 frames that must be painstakingly drawn by hand. A veritable army of artists toils over those frames, and Tim Burton was one of that army working on The Fox And The Hound. Needless to say, his creativity was stifled in the job. One of the side projects he worked on while at Disney was a poem (complete with illustrations) that would become the basis for The Nightmare Before Christmas.
After he left Disney, Burton became a director of some renown, directing films such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, and Edward Scissorhands. Finally, he had the clout to get his pet project produced, but because it was a creative idea he had hatched while at Disney, technically it was still their property. Fortunately, they were willing to work with him.
Tim Burton shooting schedule for Batman Returns conflicted with the long, arduous three year shoot of The Nightmare Before Christmas, so he brought in stop motion guru Henry Selick to take over the directing duties. Selick graduated a year before Burton from the California Institute of the Arts, and had also worked in the Disney animation studio.
While Burton had moved from Disney into mainstream Hollywood work, Selick relocated to the San Francisco area and worked with his beloved stop motion animation on a much smaller scale. Will Vinton (of California Raisins fame) and Nick Park (the creator of Wallace and Gromit, and the director of Chicken Run) may receive the most credit for the renaissance of stop-motion animation, but Selick’s less-heralded efforts are perhaps even more impressive. Over the years, he produced stop-motion bits for MTV (including a short film, Slow Bob In The Lower Dimensions) and for advertisements for Pillsbury and Ritz crackers (remember the ad with the crackers skiing through cheese on the moon? Henry Selick was the man responsible for it). After The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton and Selick collaborated on James And The Giant Peach. Selick’s next stop-motion film will be Monkeybone, scheduled for release in the fall of 2000.
The Nightmare Before Christmas showcases two of Tim Burton’s trademark influences: German expressionist films and stop-motion animation. The dark, foreboding sets, high-contrast lighting, and stark angles of The Nightmare Before Christmas (also seen in his Batman films) harken back to German films of the silent era, such as Nosferatu, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, and Metropolis. Burton has employed stop-motion animation in several of his earlier films, such as Large Marge’s transformation or Pee-Wee’s T-Rex dream in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and the climactic “battle” in Beetlejuice (by the way, if you look closely in one particular scene, you can see Jack Skellington’s head atop Michael Keaton’s carousel hat). One can imagine that if he had made Mars Attacks! a few years earlier, the Martians would have been stop-motioned rather than computer graphics. In fact, he had wanted to use stop-motion, but the prohibitively high budget forced him to turn to computer graphics.
The premise of The Nightmare Before Christmas is that the major holidays each have their own “town”: Christmas Town (at the North Pole), Halloween Town, Thanksgiving Town, et cetera. We are introduced to the ghoulish residents of Halloween Town after another successful year’s Halloween celebration. There we meet Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King. Jack is depressed because he’s tired of doing the same thing year after year. While wandering off that night (surprisingly, it’s not always night in Halloween Town), he finds a circle of trees with curious doors leading into them. One tree has a brightly decorated Christmas tree as its door. When he opens it, he is whisked away in a flurry of snow, and dumped in the middle of Santa’s village. Jack is entranced with all the wonders of the happy, joyous holiday.
Jack returns to Halloween Town with trinkets from his visit to Christmas Town. At a town meeting, he tries to turn on the witches, vampires, and other monsters of Halloween Town to the joys of Christmas. They don’t get it. So, Jack spins it into something they can understand, and portrays Santa Claus as a horrible, menacing creature. Jack’s well-intentioned but misguided mission becomes to take over Christmas. He has “Sandy Claws” kidnapped by three devilish urchins, Lock, Shock, and Barrel. The town’s residents construct horrible toys to give to the girls and boys of the world. The town’s mad scientist creates a set of reindeer to fly a sleigh (which itself was built from a coffin). Sally, the patchwork girl who loves Jack, sews him a red outfit to match his bony physique.
At long last, Christmas Eve arrives. Sally warns Jack that he is doing the wrong thing and that it will turn out badly, but he pays her no mind. Jack flies around the world, giving macabre presents to creeped-out children. (The best is an extended gag where a boy reveals his present — a shrunken head.) Enraged parents begin calling the police when the toys attack their recipients. The military shoots him out of the sky. Dejected, Jack wonders where he went wrong. Finally, he realizes that he can only be who he really is: the Pumpkin King. He races to return Santa Claus to Christmas Town so the holiday can be made right.
The Nightmare Before Christmas follows the animated movie tradition of using music and songs to progress the story. Naturally, being a Tim Burton movie, the songs are provided by his frequent collaborator, Danny Elfman. The music and the visuals are inseparable. Burton and Elfman collaborated on the music long before Selick and the other animation artists were brought in, even before screenwriter Caroline Thompson (who also wrote Edward Scissorhands) penned the script. The songs reinforce that the characters are ghoulish in form and behavior, but that they’re really not all that bad. The songs are at once morbid and joyous, breathing life into characters who are at home with their dark, sinister nature. Take “What’s This?” for example. It is the song sung by Jack when he enters Christmas Town. To a tune befitting any “Frosty the Snowman” special, Jack sings lines like: “There’s children throwing snowballs here instead of throwing heads / They’re busy building toys and absolutely no one’s dead.”
The voice talent for The Nightmare Before Christmas is a splendid bunch, drawing from the stable of Tim Burton regulars and improvisational comedy geniuses. Chris Sarandon provides the speaking voice for Jack. You’ll probably remember him as the evil Prince Humperdinck of The Princess Bride (“If I am wrong, and I am never wrong…”). Danny Elfman is Jack’s singing voice, and also does the voice of Barrel (the one with the skull mask) of the impish trio Lock, Shock, and Barrel. The voice of Lock (the one in the devil costume) is Paul Reubens, Burton’s friend and collaborator on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The voice of Shock (in the witch’s costume) is Catherine O’Hara; she also voiced Sally the patchwork girl. O’Hara worked for several years as part of the Canadian Second City comedy troupe, but she is best known to American audiences as the mother in the first two Home Alone movies. She had worked previously with Burton in Beetlejuice. Glenn Shadix provides the voice of the two-faced Mayor (literally, he has two faces — a happy one on one side of his head and a sad face on the other side). Shadix’s name probably isn’t familiar to you, but you’d probably recognize him from his role as the interior decorator tuned into the paranormal in Beetlejuice or as the sniveling assistant in Demolition Man. Greg Proops, improvisational comedian extraordinaire, does the voices for several background characters. Proops appears frequently on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” (both the British version and the current American version hosted by Drew Carey), provided the voice for one of the heads of the oh-so-annoying Pod Race announcer in The Phantom Menace (“That’s gotta hurt no matter what galaxy you’re from!”), and was a member of the Groundlings comedy troupe (of which Paul Reubens is also an alumnus).
To this point, I’ve mostly been revising my original review of the film. Always do your best, but cut corners when you can, that’s my motto. Coming to the details of the DVD, I’m forced to come up with all-original material…except Disney didn’t quite follow suit. “Cut corners wherever you can, and do a half-assed job everywhere else” seems to be Disney’s motto. Well, that’s a little harsh. The original DVD release of The Nightmare Before Christmas contained an excellent Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack and an exemplary video transfer, albeit non-anamorphic. Back in the dark days of their DVD support when the original disc was released in 1997, Disney didn’t do anamorphic transfers, nor did they put much in the way of extras on their discs. For a non-anamorphic transfer, it was excellent — excellent color fidelity and minimal NTSC noise or edge enhancement. The black level is dead-on accurate (especially important, considering most of the film takes place in gloomy Halloween Town) and the movie’s high-contrast design is captured perfectly. It’s still a very nice transfer, but it is disappointing that they would not fork out the dough for a new anamorphic transfer.
I must digress for a moment and plead that you not let the lack of a new anamorphic transfer deter you from buying this disc. I’ll present more compelling evidence in a few minutes. For now, suffice it to say that I gave the previous disc a 98 for video quality. I’ll downgrade that score to 95 for the lack of an anamorphic transfer, but that is the only concession I’ll give to the naysayers. The Nightmare Before Christmas was presented theatrically in 1.66:1 anamorphic, like most Disney animated features. For a film in this aspect ratio to be presented in anamorphic widescreen on DVD (which has a aspect ratio of 16:9, or 1.78:1), it must be “windowboxed.” That means that black bars are added to all four sides of the picture. Users with 4:3 sets (in other words, 99.5 percent of the U.S. user base) don’t see the bars on the left and right, but those with anamorphic displays can see the lost screen real estate. I suppose it’s a fair trade-off for the higher resolution, but it’s going to depend on the quality of the transfer. The Nightmare Before Christmas already has a great transfer, so that begs the question, “Why buy a brand new version?” Stayed tuned, I’m about to answer that very question.
The original DVD release had a dismal lack of extras, considering that a monster laserdisc special edition had already been released. Disney has taken the features from that laserdisc and ported them, with some additions and subtractions, to the DVD format. It’s these extras that make the new DVD worth buying. I’m going to save the best for last. First up, you get a commentary track with director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik. I’m unsure if their comments were recorded together or separately, because there is no interaction between the two of them. The commentary is a little dry, but it is a treat for those who appreciate the technical and imaginative artistry of stop-motion animation. Selick and Kozachik go into intricate detail, describing all aspects of the pre- and post-production of The Nightmare Before Christmas. A twenty-five minute documentary highlights the making of the film. Fifteen minutes have been trimmed from the laserdisc version of the documentary, but it hardly shows (unlike the doctored documentary presented on the Jaws DVD). It is a fantastic look at the sets and models used in shooting, as well as the creative vision behind the project (and hey, they even make Tim Burton sound almost articulate!). A storyboard-to-film comparison is presented of the town meeting musical sequence. This is the sole addition to the DVD over the laserdisc. Several deleted storyboarded or fully animated sequences are presented. One of these scenes is an extended version of Jack’s rescue of Santa Claus from the clutches of Oogie Boogie, and it shows more of my favorite characters, Lock, Shock, and Barrel. A thorough concept art gallery presents the design work of Tim Burton and the storyboard artists. It is divided into three sections: Halloween Town, Christmas Town, and the Real World. Naturally, the Halloween Town section presents the most information. It’s a treasure trove of marvelous artwork. Two theatrical trailers are included. One is a “teaser” that presents the project as the brainchild of Tim Burton (who was riding high after the success of Batman and Edward Scissorhands), while the other is a more standard theatrical trailer.
Okay, so you came for the great movie, but you’ll stay for the greatest extra any Tim Burton fan could ever ask for: his first directorial efforts, the short films Vincent and Frankenweenie. He directed both shorts while still at Disney, prior to directing Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Neither film received a full theatrical release, and sat collecting dust in Disney’s vaults. Frankenweenie received a video release around the time of Batman Returns, but has been unavailable for many years. This is the first time either film has been available on DVD, and it will probably be the last. If that isn’t reason enough to buy this disc, well, I’ll never be able to convince you.
Vincent is a five-minute black-and-white stop-motion short. It tells the story of one Vincent Malloy, whose active imagination transforms him into his horror movie idol, Vincent Price (who also happens to narrate). It is one of Burton’s most personal works. His hero was Vincent Price, and he also was a solitary child. In Vincent’s pointed features and unruly hair there is an unmistakable similarity to Tim Burton. It bears many marks of the influences and design themes that would become prevalent in Burton’s later works — black and white tiled patterns, the skewed angles of German expressionist cinema, strong use of the contrast between shadow and light.
Frankenweenie is a thirty-minute live-action piece, also shot in black-and-white. For a fledgling director filming a short, he assembled a strong lead cast. Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall play the parents of young Victor Frankenstein, played by Barret Oliver (who you might remember from the schlocky D.A.R.Y.L.). Victor is an aspiring filmmaker, making 8mm shorts starring his dog Sparky. After screening his latest masterpiece, Victor watches in horror when his dog is killed by a passing car. He receives inspiration from a school experiment to revive his dog using electricity. In a sequence reminiscent of James Whale’s Frankenstein, Victor exhumes his dog from the pet cemetery, and places him in his attic lab to be struck by lightning. When his parents discover what Victor has done, they cannot decide if they should accept their son’s actions or punish him. They choose the former. However, the ignorant suburbanites cannot accept what they do not understand (a theme common in Burton’s films), and this leads to the bittersweet but entertaining finale.
The Nightmare Before Christmas is such a perfect movie that it should be a part of any DVD library. Like the best animation (or any great film, for that matter), it can be enjoyed on a variety of levels. Children will be able to grasp the story with little difficulty, and most will be able to grasp that these characters are not at all scary. Anyone can enjoy Danny Elfman’s music, which is easily the best you’ll ever hear in an animated musical. Adults will appreciate the intricate detail of the models and sets, of which I uncover more little details with every viewing (and this is a film I watch at least once a month).