"Why is it they get to spread laughter and cheer,
While we stalk the graveyards, spreading panic and fear?
Well I could be Santa, and I could spread cheer.
Why does he get to do it, year after year?"
- Jack Skellington, "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (From Tim Burton's original poem).
Sometimes it's easy to forget exactly how macabre and demented The Nightmare Before Christmas can be. Giant skeletons wise in the ways of frightening people? Ghostly dogs that float instead of stride foot-by-foot? An entire community who thrives on the art of scaring the bejeezus out of people for the relishing necessity of it all? Yet around both Halloween and Christmas, a time typically reserved for the joy in our hearts, Henry Selick and Tim Burton's gloriously gothic masterpiece has become a rock-hard institution. But it's more than just a hybrid holiday musical. As an allegory mirroring conflict, inspiration, and determination between pseudo inter-cooperative worlds. The Nightmare Before Christmas is simply a phenomenal anecdote about overcoming monotony and gloominess in a melancholy little universe.
Though Selick is pegged as director and the Burton / Elfman team recede to "merely" production and musician status, the story of Jack Skellington billows uncontrollably with that distinctive charm that a Tim Burton film emits. Based off of a poem he wrote during his misaligned times in the animation department at Disney, The Nightmare Before Christmas takes a much more bleak persona than the "House of Mouse" really gravitates towards. This is a shame, because films like this and Disney's own The Black Cauldron show that darker themes can assemble compelling pieces of effective animated work. Alas, if it weren't for Disney's skepticism, we might not have The Nightmare Before Christmas in its current morbidly entertaining state. You'd think that an animated flick filled with removable limbs, dancing skeletons, and pitch-dark cinematography wouldn't be suitable for kids. Somewhere in its blend of non-ghoulish Halloween mannerisms and mild Christmas joy, it finds a balance that actually works wonderfully for people of just about every taste and age.
Taking cues from the rhythmic flow of Dr. Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas, one of Burton's influences from his youth, Jack Skellington's (Chris Sarandon, The Princess Bride) story follows suit as a similar tale of a bleak and depressed character's awakening due to the glow of Christmas cheer. Year after year, he and the people of Halloween Town scare up a storm. It's their entire way of life, actually, starting with plans that begin with brainstorming and blueprints the day after Halloween. As you travel through the city in the film's introductory flight through the scenery ("This is Halloween"), all the things that remind you of Halloween's atmosphere seem to dwell here. References from Nosferatu to Hamlet -- even to a heap of Burton's prior works, most notably the black-and-white candy-striping and creature concepts from Beetlejuice -- echo in our introduction to Jack's melancholy bubble. It's a sly world with countless little clues and nuggets of smile-inducing secrets hidden in its scenery, things that will continue to jump out at you with each viewing. There's so many delightfully perceptible gems within the crowd of Halloween Town's ghosts, monsters, and witches -- including the Frankenstein's monster-ish alchemist Sally (Catherone O'Hara, Home Alone) who slyly drugs her overbearing master just so she might mingle with the excitement of the holiday.
But Jack is worn down by countless years of this same old hooplah, just like us society-laden people can get with the repetition of our jobs; while on a stroll amid a contemplative and depressive stupor ("Jack's Lament") about it, he stumbles across a series of colorful doors in the woods. One of the doors in particular grabs his humdrum attention: a door with a brightly-decorated pine tree. Stumbling down the rabbit hole in a very Alice in Wonderland fashion, he falls into a colorful place filled with drastically different sights, sounds, colors ... everything. Watching Jack's skinny body darting around Christmas Town as he begins to sing about the neon world that surrounds us every single year (What's This?") is kind of like watching a kid's first trip to a toy store. Though his trip to Christmas Town might also seem visually comparable to the Grinch's squirm through Whooville, his budding desire to partake in this Christmas' festivities shows the opposite side of that coin -- transforming Jack's good natured outreach into destructive ruin once he and his deviant-spirited buddies try to seize the holiday.
Visually, Burton's concepts of these polar-opposite worlds, ones that mirror and pour into each other in both intentional and unintentional ways, are some of the most ornately detailed and expertly captured shots in stop-motion -- and in animation altogether. To get these images, Burton had to build his own team of animators from the ground up, thus creating his own dark world. I relish in the darkness of Burton's specific type of universe; some film enthusiasts find his gothic textures and glitzy Elfman scores a bit repetitive, whereas I can't ever get enough. Pete Kozachik, also the cinematographer for Tim Burton's quasi-sequel Corpse Bride, exhibits an astounding capacity to capture each and every ounce of tangible realism inside Nightmare's 24 frames-per-second motion. There is so much eloquence in the visual "voice" that this film exhibits, rich with a nearly-immeasurable amount of inventiveness present in each shot that gives every glance something different to focus on.
But it's the rhythmic and quick editing style stitched together with its utterly charming song pieces and vocal work that make The Nightmare Before Christmas a true stunning success in the realm of animation. Elfman's vocalization of "singing" Jack in his seamlessly charming stage presence gives the off-faceless orchestrator a classy and integral part into the narrative. He's a star as Jack, but not the most surprising success. Easily the most well-achieved role comes in Catherine O'Hara's honest and eclectic sweetness as Sally. It's one of Nightmare's most compelling farces -- the handmade character, stuffed and stitched together by a half-hearted creator, shows the most human of emotion in Halloween Town. Jack's animated emotional structure gives us a gravitating stage presence to entertain (not so far off from the desires of a certain "Ghost with the Most"), but Sally's trapped outreach to the blinded "hero" stands as the core theme of the film.
It's only fitting that one of my favorite musical sequences in all of cinema, a rarity for a non-musical oriented film lover like myself, occurs in The Nightmare Before Christmas when a befuddled Jack sings to revitalize himself in the arms of an angelic stone gargoyle. In its eerie graveyard setting, the scene gathers together every element that makes the film a success -- the gothic nature of its tone, Elfman's phenomenal vocals, as well as the outstanding play on character paradigms and emotional colors -- into one fantastic epiphany. Burton's brainchild of a film exhibits mannerisms and atmosphere that ensnare the "Halloween" essence inside of its audience, while the sense of hope and rejuvenation amid darkness do the same for their "Christmas" counterparts. It achieves a lot in its short hour-and-fifteen minute time with its audience, thereby giving us something to return and marvel at in the same manner as Jack's first discovery -- and, in a sense, reminiscent of our own first discovery -- of Christmas.
Previously released under their Touchstone moniker for a Special Edition disc in 2000, Disney's new Two (really Three) Disc Collector's Edition of The Nightmare Before Christmas comes handsomely packaged in a unique fold-out digipack presentation. It houses the two main discs in a layered hub on the right side of the DVD, while keeping the "Digital Copy" disc on the left. It's reminiscent of Universal's Serenity: Collector's Edition DVD, though the front has a more unique presentation in the form of a puffy raised Jack Skellington picture "underneath" the front flap.
Also available is an uber-snazzy numbered Giftset with a hand-crafted Jack Skellington bust that retails at $179.99. It contains, assumedly, the same three discs from this set, along with a Santa-themed disc wallet and decorative "disguise" for the bust. To say the least, if the transfer and supplements are the same as the Collector's Edition, it's not a terrible decision to go for the standard definition release encapsulated in the huge collector's item ... even considering all the press focused on the sublime quality of the Blu-ray.
Fans of the film who own the older release can rejoice, if only for this fact: The Nightmare Before Christmas is presented in its original aspect ratio, sitting close to 1.66:1 (actually, it's closer to 1.68:1) in a brilliantly detailed image enhanced for 16x9 widescreen televisions. Not only is it anamorphic, it is a magnificently lurid transfer at that. To my eyes, the puckering lushness of Nightmare's color palette looks incredible; however, I'm not certain if this level of color replication is the intended saturation. One thing's for certain, though: this presentation is a phenomenal way to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Left = 2000 Special Edition, Right = 2008 Collector's Edition
Rich color leaps from the print in almost freshly-painted radiance, ditching many of the olive and lavender hues from the original transfer in pursuit of more vibrant and bold shades. The new transfer appears darker when compared directly to the old transfer, though it also seems like there's a fair amount of contrast-boosting in the old print to make the scattered flashes of white really leap from the predominately black print. A hard comparison comes to light here, one which takes the emptiness of the older color scheme and comparing it to the fully-fleshed starkness available in this new restoration. Here, amid a more aptly handled spread of black levels, every element looks highly natural and, to my delight, almost capable to be reached out to and touched.
Most impressive, however, is the transfer's capacity to handle such dark scenes with outstanding levels of contrast competence. The brightness of blooming lit objects, such as Christmas lights and rays of moonlight, pours through with a sensation level of realism. This brightness alternates nicely with the drab and empty scenes from Halloween Town, which look quite apt in their darkness. One only problem that jumped out at me with this visual presentation is a hint of edge enhancement in certain spots, especially around Jack's body and such. It ranges from slight to mildly noticeable, but the slightly noisy halos that pop up are never distracting. Surprisingly, the drastic contrasts between darkness and glaring whites, something that can be plagued with horrible enhancement issues, looks pretty darn solid in most cases. Overall, this is a very impressive presentation that accentuates the visual sumptuousness of this classic film to great lengths.
Word hit the streets that the standard edition of The Nightmare Before Christmas would only hold a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, while the heavily-lauded Blu-ray received a rich Dolby True HD 7.1 surround presentation. I'm happy to report that the first piece of information, a potential deterrent for the disc, is indeed NOT true, as Burton's rich aural film is presented in Dolby 5.1 tracks in English, French, and Spanish, while also being presented with a great DTS 5.1 treatment. After being pleasantly surprised from the option alone, next came in an analytical process between the two tracks. After many select comparisons ("This is Halloween", "What's This?", and my personal favorite "Poor Jack"), here's what I can discern:
From the very beginning, you can tell that this new DTS track is a more evenly balanced aural option than its predecessor. However, you'll more than likely need to raise the volume a good two or three notches; when listening to both options, the front is noticeably lower. Once I kicked up the volume just a hair, the true effectiveness of the sound presentation took flight. Starting with the graceful whoosh of the introductory jack-o-lantern atop a scarecrow and forth from there, the rear channels receive a ridiculous amount of activity. Even at lower volumes, this is detectable.
Usage of the lower frequency channel is much more graceful this time around, utilizing the higher ranges to a very taut degree. Moreover, once the volume has been kicked up just a shade, the level of clarity and inherent detail in the track can really be identified. As mentioned, it's not as "loud", but it's much more delicate and refined. The Dolby 5.1 Ex track is no slouch either and, to tell the honest truth, sounds a bit cleaner to my ears than the original DTS track. Oddly, the sound level seems fine for this option. Overall, once you've found the right volume balance just a hair higher than normal listening level, this new audio mix is a real winner. French and Spanish subtitles are available with the English language track.
In regards to supplemental material, those of you who decided to relieve themselves of their copies of The Nightmare Before Christmas 2000 Special Edition should feel satisfied with this new package. However, those looking for much new latched onto this package will feel a bit disappointed. In other words, the previously quite-comprehensive disc's material once again get the job done -- with only a few new spots of entertainment. Here's what we're working with:
NEW Audio Commentary with Selick, Burton, and Elfman:
Sadly, this isn't quite as interesting as it sounds. This material actually features segmented material from all three filmmakers, recorded at different times and sleekly edited together to form one cohesive commentary track. In short, Elfman sings a lot, Burton manages to be his "focused" self here, and Selick adds little extra tidbits about his participation with Burton's special story. Lots of interesting nuggets wiggle into this commentary track about the incredible production values of the film, though mostly regurgitated from other making-of featurettes discussed later. It's a nice, well-pieced together track, though hearing the rapport from all three individuals would've been an ideal situation. For reference, the previous commentary track found on the original Special Edition is NOT included in this package.
Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas:
Seperated into six (6) chapters that range from production to music, overall this is around twenty-five (25) minutes of material that takes the insightful television-style keel. These segmented pieces get really interesting when they start tossing around statistics, such as the length of time it takes to form one whole minute of footage, etc.
Tim Burton's Original Poem, narrated by Christopher Lee:
By far the best feature in the set, both new and recycled, this reading takes Burton's original sketch art and -- get this -- "animates" the story in somewhat static motion. Narrated by Christopher Lee, a regular in Burton's films, he grasps the proper energy of the eerie little poem. This feature is anamorphic and presented with surround sound functionality.
What's This? Jack's Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour:
Nightmare Before Christmas meets haunted mansion for this trip through a theme park ride with oddly-replicated set designs from the film. It's kind of a time waster, but sort of fun at the same time to glide through the track.
On Disc 2 ...
Frankenweenie and Vincent:
As featured on the older disc, two of Burton's older short films (Frankenweenie at 30 minutes, Vincent at nearly 6) make it over to the second disc. Frankenweenie (30 min.), starring Shelley Duvall (The Shining) and Daniel Stern (City Slickers), is a compelling little story that revisits Burton's fascination with Frankenstein's monster in an interesting way. It's an inventive short that's slotted for a full-length adaptation late next year, though it's currently only in the "early stages of production". Vincent (6 min.) follows Burton's surreal flavor of film to a fantastic point, foreshadowing some of his classic models used in Beetlejuice.
World of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas:
Segmented into the three worlds that exist in Nightmare Before Christmas (Halloween Town, Christmas Town, The Real World), this feature covers a lot of concept art and test animations for just about every featured character in the film. The initial animation footage really accentuates all the extensive work that went into crafting this landmark picture. Each of the still image programs on the disc navigate by pressing the Left and Right buttons on your remote, cycling through the shots at your discretion.
Also included from the previous edition are several curious Deleted Scenes that really don't seem to be all that different of material from the film, a sharp Storyboard-to-Film Comparison that features the original production sketches mention in the making-of featurette, and a few Posters and Trailers ... all of which are still presented in full-screen.
Disc 3 is reserved specifically for the Disney File Digital Copy. Following a prompt once a menu loads on your computer, you can enjoy the 898.2 MB file in either iTunes for WMA format once it has finished downloading.
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas arose in a time when animation was starting to regain a strong footing in mainstream cinema. After such recognized achievements like the ones that Disney's own gleeful fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast received, not to mention its arguably more enjoyable brethren The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, it was a difficult time for a dark and eerie stop-motion film to gain legs and try to outrun the successes of its larger competitors. Thankfully, through repetition on television and home video opportunities over the past fifteen years, Nightmare has found quite a crowd. Gothic and creepy with a dash of sentimental poignancy, it's a bizarre treasure that hits the perfect rhythm between its contrasting emotions. And, to say the very least, it's an animated classic that gets better with each and every viewing -- which, usually, results in the discovery of something new. The film itself has Collector's Series written all over it for infinite rewatchability and inescapably dark beauty.
When it comes to recommending this Collector's Edition, all I really need to mention are three things to help justify a purchase among both fans who own the older disc and those sitting on the bench waiting for a better release: Anamorphic, DTS, and nearly 100% of extras from the old edition. With that said, The Nightmare Before Christmas has never looked more enjoyable than in this print. Sadly, I can't say "better", since the Blu-ray release somewhat corners the market on that front. However, this DVD is nothing to slouch at, sporting a phenomenal transfer and a rich aural soundstage that provides an exceedingly pleasant presentation for soaking in the film. It has a steep price tag, which sadly accounts for that now commonplace digital copy disc, but the new visual treatment, the great surround mix, and the added bonus features (the Lee-narrated original poem is splendid) are bewitching enough to carry this new Collector's Edition into the ranks of DVDTalk's Collector's Series.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site