The Nightmare Before Christmas Review

It started as a poem and a few sketches, added a collection of songs years later before finally being realised as a stop motion animation film, and is now something of a relatively massive commercial entity. What is probably Disney's least characteristic animated movie slowly garnered legions of fans until the shirts, the dolls, the key rings, stickers, and tattoos transformed The Nightmare Before Christmas into a quiet phenomenon. After fifteen years now since its release in cinemas, when Disney was too afraid to use its main releasing branch and opted for the Touchstone banner instead, the film has transcended its flaws, notably the uneven songs and a hurried plotting, to become perhaps the most-loved animated film in the past two decades. If this is a stretch, you surely wouldn't know it by the depths this imperfect, if never less than fun, 76-minute upheaval of holiday cartoon conventions has inundated certain sectors of our society. From a marketing standpoint, Jack Skellington has become the new Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck.

Assuming you enjoy capitalism, that's all well and good, but the sheer popularity of the film and its accessories threaten to overshadow the actual quality of the original product. As ever, the trouble in evaluating a film that's inspired such obsession is in trying to figure out whether that devotion comes from the merits or the memories (or maybe even the merchandise). For those who love the film, is it about what's on screen or is it your relationship to the characters and the songs? Owing to its meticulous production, The Nightmare Before Christmas is brimming with detail at every turn, whizzing by with little time to catch it all. This definitely lends itself to viewing again and again and again as you notice something new each time. Then the more you watch, the more those songs rattle around your head and soon enough you're dealing with "What's This" on the morning commute. So you watch the film some more and this casual repeating becomes almost like a feature-length series of music videos. And you're hooked.

Or so I'd imagine. The story of a frightfully festive alternate reality where Halloween Town celebrates its holiday once a year and spends all the other days preparing for the next go-round is a winning proposition. Pumpkin king Jack Skellington, a lithe and mantis-like creature prone to fits of manic exuberance, doesn't appear to have a heart, but, if he did, it would be in the right place. Though the mythology is a tad murky, Jack and his fellow H-town residents seem to be dead, with the exception of scarred maiden Sally, who was created by scientist Dr. Finklestein. But Jack has become bored with the routine and seems oblivious to Sally's romantic interest in him. During a walk intended to cure his melancholy, he discovers doors to other towns like his own, ultimately settling on Christmas Town and its brightly lit contrast to the dour expressionism of Halloween Town. Just as the latter has Jack as its de facto leader, the former has Sandy Claws, a red-suited and rotund figure who also prepares all year for his one day of holiday fun.

Despite Jack's blissful delusions that he can substitute for or even improve on Sandy's annual midnight ride, kids just aren't that thrilled with receiving vampire teddy bears and shrunken heads. The potential for macabre comedy is mined clean in these scenes preparing for and executing Jack's Christmas adventure. They are wholly inspired in both their detail and their portrayal of Jack as this naive figure the audience can easily get behind, even relate to on some level. Like the film, he's completely timeless and exists in a universe mostly unrecognisable. He's close to being the classic Tim Burton hero. Where Burton's characters are normally fragile souls trying to fit in or adjust to a world that feels foreign, Jack is already in his element, but itchy for something more. The characteristic Burton longing is on full display, as is that familiar take on misfit love.

If you didn't know Tim Burton was behind The Nightmare Before Christmas (a difficult task since his name is plastered 13 times on the outside of the case and twice more on the slipcover), his other work would be a persuasive tip-off that the director was heavily involved in the film. And by all accounts he was. The main characters were originally sketched and created by him and his poem provided the story idea, one inspired by "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and Rankin-Bass specials like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Burton's name is unavoidably linked to the movie, no doubt giving it a certain distinction for some, but it was animator Henry Selick who earned sole directing credit and contributed a great deal of, at the very least, time that Burton couldn't have invested in such an arduous project. Selick's involvement, as well as that of composer Danny Elfman who wrote all the songs and lent Jack his singing voice, has hopefully not gotten lost in the fray. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson shouldn't be overlooked either. The sweetness that was also in Edward Scissorhands, which Thompson co-wrote, is here, but not really found in Burton's other work. Despite not being human, both Jack and Edward are humanised much more than Burton's other protagonists.

It's not just questions of authorship that slightly bother me about the lofty reputation of The Nightmare Before Christmas. I also think the movie works best as an experience, something capitalised on by Disney's now-annual 3-D screenings. When taken on its own and without being fully absorbed through repeated exposure, the film feels rushed and lacking in emotional depth. The plotting doesn't take enough time to fully establish characters outside of Jack and it all resembles a thinly-sketched whirlwind. Further still, the presence of ten songs act more as distractions than complements. For all it's attention to the tiniest of physical detail, The Nightmare Before Christmas is rather small in the area of story, a problem most likely caused by turning a poem into a feature-length movie. But the more you watch, the less these quibbles seem to matter. They become excusable, forgotten by increased familiarity. Every little toothy smile of Jack's stitched mouth inspires a grin of your own. You know, or at least tolerate, the songs. It is, as I said, an experience more than a mere movie. Finding happiness inside the demented world of Halloween Town isn't that difficult. That the film isn't really beholden to traditional rules can become another part of its considerable charm.

The Discs

After a couple of years out of print, The Nightmare Before Christmas is finally available for purchase once again, both on Blu-ray and in this Collector's Edition R1 DVD. (Plus an expensive Ultimate Collector's DVD Set.) The "2-Disc Collector's Edition" released by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment is actually 3 discs, with the added inclusion of a Digital Copy and a unique activation code. Packaging is a bit strange and bulky, roughly as thick as two standard keepcases. The reason for the added heft is that the front cover sports a three-dimensional image of Jack's face and his bat bowtie, arranged to resemble a framed picture. A clear slipcover slides over the case.

Where the earlier R1 releases were not enhanced for widescreen televisions, this new edition thankfully is. The 1.66:1 image looks excellent, with the dominant blacks appearing deep and rich and the colours more vibrant than on previous transfers. Everything looks brighter and hopefully that's as it should be instead of a case where Disney saw fit to make it look more visually impressive. Those more used to the drab and faded palette seen on other releases may be surprised. Detail comes through very strongly and no digital imperfections were detected. The progressive transfer is also free from any significant damage or debris, looking more like a new release than one from 15 years ago.

It's not advertised even on the back of the case, but an English DTS 5.1 track has been included as an alternative to the Dolby Digital 5.1 option. Neither is excessively loud, but both sound clean and perfectly balanced. The DTS just does everything a little better. With the frequent sound effects and the film's many songs, a well-done mix is important and these tracks really do perform nicely. They sound pleasingly full and freely utilise the rear channels. Spanish and French DD 5.1 dubs are also available, as are subtitles in English for the hearing impaired, French, and Spanish. Both discs even prompt the viewer to choose among English, French and Spanish before navigating the menu. Most, if not all the special features carry the subtitles, too.

The previous special edition for the film was quite generous in terms of supplements, and the good news is that almost everything included on that release is carried over here. Only the previous commentary is ditched in favour of a new track. The earlier one featured director Henry Selick and cinematographer Pete Kozachik, and this newly-recorded outing has Selick, Tim Burton, and composer Danny Elfman. The three participants were all recorded separately. Though there's hardly anything revelatory here, those interested in the genesis of the film should find the track enjoyable. In fact, after going through the commentary and the behind the scenes featurette I feel confident I could pass a fairly extensive quiz on the making of The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Also new, and found on disc one, is "What's This? Jack's Haunted Mansion Tour," which is split into two parts. "On Track" (7:14) consists of the actual ride narration and an optional trivia pop-up track for the seasonal Disney theme park ride based on the film. "Off Track" (37:22) is a much longer look at the process behind setting up the ride, including interviews with the designers. The piece is too lengthy and typical of Disney's cross-promotion synergy, but still worth watching for fans of the film or the theme parks.

Preceded by a very short introduction from Tim Burton (0:39), his original poem (10:57) is read by Christopher Lee and illustrated with Burton's original concept art. It's probably my favourite part of the set and both Lee's narration and the concept art illustrations are perfect, just as effective as the film if not more so. In addition to the usual Disney "Sneak Peeks," the first disc is finished off by "The Making of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (24:42), which is the same shortened version found on the special edition DVD that originated as a 40-minute featurette on the laserdisc. Even at nearly 25 minutes, the behind the scenes look at the film's production feels authoritative.

Disc two is highlighted by a pair of Burton's early shorts. Everything on the disc is recycled save for another brief introduction (0:32) by the filmmaker prior to "Frankenweenie" (30:02), his half-hour short film about a suburban kid named Victor Frankenstein who resurrects his dog. The homage to James Whale's Frankenstein is presented here uncut. The Burton animated short "Vincent" (5:52), with narration from Vincent Price, was a little more to my liking and a welcome carryover from earlier editions. Next up is a selection of deleted scenes with audio introductions from Henry Selick. In all, there are three deleted storyboards (2:54) and a quartet of animated scenes (5:04) that were removed from the film.

The rest of the single-layered second disc is dominated by familiar designs and concept art. "The Worlds of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" consists of three parts - "Halloween Town," "Christmas Town," and "The Real World" - and features numerous character images. Animation tests with commentary from Henry Selick are also available for the characters of Jack Skellington, Sally, and ghost dog Zero. There's also a short storyboard-to-film comparison (3:46) on the disc. A gallery of posters, a teaser (1:42) and a short trailer (1:25) close things out.

Final Thoughts

People love The Nightmare Before Christmas and I think it must be because not only is the film vastly entertaining, it's also quite different from mainstream animation. There truly is a unique world created by Tim Burton, Henry Selick, Danny Elfman and all their collaborators. So it's nice to have the film readily available once again, and in an edition that essentially betters everything about the previous releases. Disney has a knack for throwing a lot of supplements onto their titles and making them seem filled with extras when most of the bonus material is actually not that interesting. The studio is guilty of that again here to an extent, but there's still plenty of good stuff like Burton's poem and his short films plus a new commentary. The curious who don't yet own the movie should be more than satisfied with this release (or the Blu-ray) and the current owners of the earlier special edition will probably want a few of the new extras and the anamorphic upgrade.

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