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DVD SAVANT

Tim Burton's
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Savant Blu-ray Review


The Nightmare Before Christmas
Blu-ray
Disney
1993 / Color / 1:66 widescreen / 76 min. / Street Date August 26, 2008 / 39.99
Starring (voices) Danny Elfman, Chris Sarandon, Catherine O'Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken Page
Cinematography Peter Kozachik
Art Direction Deane Taylor, Barry E. Jackson
Film Editor Stan Webb
Original Music Danny Elfman
Written by Tim Burton, Michael McDowell, Caroline Thompson
Produced by Tim Burton, Denise DiNovi
Directed by Henry Selick

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

We're told that The Nightmare Before Christmas began as a daydream-with-sketches by Tim Burton while apprenticing at Disney animation in the early 1980s. He envisioned this ghostly take on a Christmas story as a "reverse How the Grinch Stole Christmas", and admits that it was inspired by those old 1960s TV specials about Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the ones that used stop-motion animation of miniature puppets.

Burton's film has become a minor classic in just fifteen years; it's still a marvel of the stop-motion art. Working from Burton's designs, director Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach organized a small army of animators that labored for more than two years on the tale of Jack Skellington, crafting every single frame from scratch. Disney has released the show in umpteen different video versions, but this new Blu-ray beats them all for clarity. In the higher resolution of HD, the animators' and artisans' work seems even more amazing.

Synopsis:

After another successful celebration in Halloween Town, the disenchanted Jack Skellington (voice Chris Sarandon, singing voice Danny Elfman) discovers the existence of Christmas Town. He organizes his fellow ghouls and monsters to do something different: create this year's Christmas holiday and give "Sandy Claws" (voice Edward Ivory) a break. Jack doesn't listen to the warnings of Sally (voice Catherine O'Hara), a revived corpse created by Dr. Finklestein (voce William Hickey). Sally can't tell Jack that she loves him, mainly because she's too busy trying to poison Finklestein, and keep her various body parts sewn together. Demonic trick or treaters Lock, Shock and Barrel kidnap Old Saint Nick so Jack can deliver Christmas gifts instead. Jack doesn't realize that his gift-wrapped shrunken heads and voracious serpents don't make good yuletide gifts. Even worse, both Santa and Sally are delivered into the clutches of Oogie Boogie (voice Ken Page), a ghostly bad guy who intends to do away with them both!

Tim Burton assembled The Nightmare Before Christmas as Walt Disney might have, lending his story and basic designs to a group of professionals and overseeing from the role of producer. After dazzling audiences with his fantastic live-action films (Pee-Wee's Greatest Adventure, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) Burton doubled back to his arts-school roots to revisit the macabre environs of his animated short Vincent. The tone is much lighter but the details are just as diabolical. Burton's Goth-chic sensibility comes through in everything he does, surfacing even in his latest film Sweeney Todd.

The Nightmare Before Christmas plays with holiday conventions in a way that celebrates differences. Halloween Town is populated by vampires, ghouls, fiends, mad scientists and other strange creatures, including a melting glop-thing and a fishy mermaid that resembles Universal's old Gill-Man. Jack Skellington, a skeleton with a pumpkin-like head and arms and legs as spindly as a daddy longlegs spider, is the creator of each year's Halloween night revels. This year he's inspired to organize Christmas instead. The best gags come from Jack's morbid idea of what constitutes a great Christmas gift; it's a shame that Charles Addams wasn't around to enjoy some of the horrid "things" that unsuspecting kids find under their trees ... like a python that swallows the Christmas tree whole!

For romance we get Finklestein's monster, a shapely stack of sutures called Sally. The wheelchair bound brain Finklestein has a duck's beak, and may be a nod to Sally Cruikshank's now-obscure underground animated classic Quasi at the Quackadero. He obviously has sexual designs on Sally, who retaliates by slipping him various poisons. While Finklestein lingers in a coma, Sally steps out to adore Jack from afar. Caught up in his own ideas, Jack only sees Sally as a skilled seamstress to sew his Santa costume -- she gets a lot of practice re-stitching her arms and legs back on.

Nightmare is one of the closest collaborations between Tim Burton and his frequent composer Danny Elfman, who has a knack for recreating the thrills of old genre soundtracks like Mars Attacks! For Nightmare Elfman creates his first full-on musical since his very un-Disney Forbidden Zone. Clever lyrics grace most of the songs; Elfman himself does the singing voice of Jack Skellington. The song given the creepy villain Oogie Boogie pretty much repeats the Devil's song from Forbidden Zone, complete with a Cab Calloway ambience. Perhaps the best thing to be said about The Nightmare Before Christmas as a musical is that it doesn't fall into the trap of big animated hits of the nineties (many of them Disney's) that more or less emulate Broadway styles -- and have subsequently become Broadway shows. Burton, Elfman and Selick's musical numbers only amplify the visual gags and stylistic flourishes. As soon as one of these complicated songs is over, we realize that we've been too impressed by the crazy animation to think about how any of it was done.

Burton uses cel animation, computer enhancement and other optical tricks, all of it so clever that one can't be sure exactly how some effects were achieved. Computers haven't killed off the appeal of this kind of stop-motion work, which has an indefinable handmade quality that audiences enjoy. It's encouraging to know that people still respond better to stop-motion than they do the slick motion-capture animation seen in movies like Beowulf.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a whimsical fairy tale for fans of things that go bump in the night, with little if any disturbing content. Very small children of course have no business seeing all the macabre imagery, and even Oogie Boogie might be too much for them. Deprived of his Harvey Comix-style "ghost" wrapper, Oogie is revealed as a tall stack of bugs and worms -- but colorful bugs and worms. For the rest of us it's a pleasure soaking our brains in the film's creative visuals, like a landscape bluff that morphs to form a pathway for Jack to step down. And the crunchy-ice texture of all those snowdrifts, with puppet feet forming perfect snowy footprints -- how'd they do that?


Disney's Blu-ray of The Nightmare Before Christmas takes a bit of time to load on my player (I'm sure it's much faster on newer models) but is definitely worth the wait. The clarity of the image and the tactile illusions of the various characters are fascinating -- it's like watching a 3-D toy store come to life.  1 The 7.1 "Tru HD" audio sounds as if one is in a mixing studio.

Disney has plenty of interesting extras, which load with a graphic of the Mayor of Halloween Town's spinning head. Burton, Elfman and Selick provide a full commentary on the main disc, and Burton contributes a personal introduction better than most.

The making-of docu stresses the lengthy shooting with dozens of animators and scores of cameramen. Other featurettes concentrate on designs and concepts behind the various "Worlds" of the show. Just thinking of the thousands of perfect, articulated miniature props needed for this picture is staggering. We also see a brief selection of deleted scenes, for the most part pieces of scenes, and storyboard comparisons. Other galleries show more artwork and posters. In the lengthy Disneyland tie-in featurette What's This?, Disney Imagineers discussing the conversion of the theme park's Haunted Mansion into a "Nightmare" Christmas celebration for the holidays.

Best of all are some special added attractions. Actor and Burton favorite Christopher Lee recites Burton's original poem, the basis for the story of Jack Skellington. Appearing complete and uncut are the two early Burton short subjects that launched his feature career. Frankenweenie stars Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall, and is a twisted remake of Frankenstein with young Victor (Barret Oliver from The NeverEnding Story) bringing his beloved dog back from the dead. It isn't as sick as it sounds .. and a 13 year-old Sophia Coppola plays the Girl Next Door. Even more amusing is the brief, Vincent Price-narrated animated short Vincent, a B&W keeper about a boy who identifies with Edgar Allan Poe's doomed heroes.

Disney's enthusiastic participation in Blu-ray will help guarantee the format's healthy development. Sleeping Beauty is on the way, and The New York Times just let it slip that over the next two years the studio is promising Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Fantasia 2000 and Beauty and the Beast.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Nightmare Before Christmas Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 26, 2008

Footnote:

1. In 2006 the studio and Burton used digital technology to fashion a 3-D theatrical version of Nightmare, which must have been quite an eyeful.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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