Michael Mackenzie has reviewed the Scandinavian special edition release of Tim Burton’s celebrated stop motion animated musical, The Nightmare Before Christmas. This is the first release of the film to be both anamorphic and in its correct aspect ratio.
You can’t help but feel sorry for director Henry Selick. He clearly poured his heart and soul into this project, yet it is continually referred to as “Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas“. In fact, many reviews go so far as to credit Burton as the film’s director. The reason for this confusion is in fact quite clear: it was Burton who conceived the characters and settings, based on a poem he wrote some years earlier, and the film bears his unmistakable Gothic stylistics.
Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King. He lives in Halloween Town, and once a year he and his cronies set out to terrorize the world. This year, however, amid the celebrations of what the Mayor describes as “our most horrible [Halloween] yet”, Jack has become bored of what he does, and yearns for change. While wandering in the woods, he comes across Christmas Town, the antithesis of Halloween Town. Jack is so overcome by how happy and colourful Christmas Town is that he decides that the residents of Halloween Town will take over the holiday of Christmas… and improve it too!
The Nightmare Before Christmas was in fact the first ever full-length stop-motion animated feature, although many people seem to think that Chicken Run was the first. In fact, it is the medium used which makes The Nightmare Before Christmas so endearing. The slightly crude, unfinished and precarious look is absolutely perfect for depicting the disturbing Halloween Town, and also works extremely well in conveying the innocence of Christmas Town. The worlds depicted here are deliberately stylized and full of all sorts of weird details and idiosyncrasies, such as the Mayor of Halloween Town, who has two faces (a two-faced politician – get it?). Three distinctly different locations are depicted – Halloween Town, Christmas Town and our own world – and all of them are completely unique and unlike anything depicted on film before.
This film is decidedly a musical, and the score and songs are provided by long-term Burton collaborator Danny Elfman (who was also the film’s associate producer). While admittedly incredibly silly and at times simplistic, the songs are charming and definitely grow on you with repeat playings. They encapsulate the movie’s creepy but innocent mood perfectly, and are also incredibly memorable (especially Jack’s “What’s This?” song, which he sings upon discovering Christmas Town). I don’t normally go in for musicals, but The Nightmare Before Christmas is a big exception, and I can’t imagine how it could have worked as anything other than a musical.
It is worth noting that The Nightmare Before Christmas was originally due to be released under the Walt Disney Pictures label, and indeed the first trailer carried a Disney logo at the start. However, someone obviously got cold feet, and instead the film was released under the Touchstone Pictures label. It is perhaps easy to see why: the film is so completely different from anything Disney has ever released. That said, it is perhaps a shame that Disney were not brave enough to release this decidedly odd movie under their own label, as it could easily have done quite a lot to change the public’s perception of Disney as a purveyor of generic and “safe” products. Indeed, more than anything it is the bizarre coupling of the grotesque and the childlike that makes this film work as well as it does.
This was definitely a skeleton production when compared to the films Disney was producing at the time. Whereas most Disney films are worked on by several hundred people, The Nightmare Before Christmas had a much smaller crew, with only fourteen credited animators and a small number of assistants. The result is a film that is a lot more coherent and stylistically focused than any of Disney’s recent features, with the possible exception of Lilo & Stitch.
At a mere 76 minutes (73 with PAL speed-up), The Nightmare Before Christmas doesn’t outstay its welcome. If anything, it is too short, and although plenty of time is given to explore all the various characters and worlds, it’s a shame it ends so quickly, because the characters and locations visited are so endearing and interesting. If you’ll forgive a personal anecdote, I’ll go on the record and say that The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of my favourite festive movies of all time, and is somewhat unique in that it is the only film I can think of that covers both Halloween and Christmas. Check it out – you won’t be disappointed.
The major selling point of this release, in my view, is the fact that for the first time the film is presented anamorphically in its correct aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Previously, all releases were either in the correct ratio but non-anamorphic (see the American releases), or anamorphic but matted to 1.85:1 (all PAL releases). After previously having only seen the film matted, it is a real pleasure to finally watch it in its correct ratio. Almost immediately the improvements to the framing are obvious, with the film looking much better composed and less cramped vertically.
The transfer is overall strong and compares favourably with the UK release. It is a little darker but has noticeably richer colours (the UK version has a slightly more yellow tint and looks quite muted in comparison) and seems to be quite a bit sharper. The UK release is more blurry, although it’s certainly not bad. This new version is clearly also less filtered than the UK release and therefore shows more grain, resulting in a more film-like appearance. Unfortunately, it is a little overcompressed (a mere 5.75 Mbit/sec average bit rate is given), and while artifacts are generally not intrusive, the image has a slightly crushed look. It is a shame that a higher bit rate was not afforded, as there is plenty of empty space on the disc.
Overall, however, this is a more pleasing transfer than either the matted UK version or the non-anamorphic American release. In fact, it’s definitely the best The Nightmare Before Christmas has ever looked on DVD.
Sadly only a 384 Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track has been provided, which is a shame because the lower bit rate (compared to a possible 448 Kbps) makes the rich score seem a little crushed and tinny. That said, the UK release was also 384 Kbps, so people who are upgrading to this release from the UK version will not notice any difference. The US release featured a DTS track, and it is disappointing that one was not included on this disc, because there is plenty of room for it.
That said, the audio is generally pretty good. There are no problems with clarity or drop-outs, and although there are few obvious uses of the surround channels (apart from some clever uses of multiple speakers when the Mayor uses his megaphone), it is a very enveloping mix.
Incidentally, viewers who have previously owned the US release will be pleased to know that the line by the Mayor that was missing from that version (“Hold it, we haven’t given out the prizes yet!”) is indeed included here.
The menu is quite nicely done and is in fact exactly the same as the one included on the UK special edition release. It includes background animation and music and generally ties in well with the style of the film.
The packaging for this Danish release is quite a bit better than the UK version, in that is shows the full artwork on the front as opposed to the somewhat cropped version used for the UK release. It is presented in a standard amaray case.
No inlay is provided.
The extras on this disc have been ported over from the excellent special edition laserdisc, although unfortunately Henry Selick’s short film, Slow Bob in the Lower Dimension, could not be included here for legal reasons.
Audio commentary – The first extra on offer is a commentary with director Henry Selick and cinematographer Pete Kozachik. Unfortunately neither of the speakers is particularly engaging, resulting in a dry and predominantly technical commentary. Somewhat bizarrely, throughout most of the commentary it sounds as if the two speakers were recorded separately; yet, towards the end, they do finally begin to overlap a little. Tim Burton is conspicuously absent here, although going by his track record for commentaries (for example, Sleepy Hollow), we are perhaps not missing much.
The Making of The Nightmare Before Christmas – Running at slightly under 25 minutes, this is a relatively by-the-numbers but nonetheless interesting “making-of” documentary. The song composition, design, photography and animation are all discussed by key members of the production, including Henry Selick, Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and various animators.
Storyboard to film comparison – This short split-screen comparison runs for around four minutes and compares the storyboard version of the “town meeting” segment with the finished animation. It’s very nice but too short.
Deleted scenes – This section is arranged into two different categories: Deleted Storyboards and Deleted Animated Sequences. Three storyboards are included, including a very interesting alternative idea for the identity of Oogie Boogie. There are four fully animated sequences, and in fact most are extended versions of scenes that remain in the finished film. One short sequence is an in-joke where the vampires of Halloween Town play hockey with the severed head of Tim Burton. In the final version is was replaced with a Jack O’ Lantern. All the sequences begin with a brief audio introduction by Henry Selick.
The worlds of The Nightmare Before Christmas – This section is divided into three areas: Halloween Town, Christmas Town, and The Real World. Each is an image gallery showing designs for various characters and locations. Animation tests are also provided for some of the characters, with audio commentary by Henry Selick. This is a fascinating section that you could really spend ages looking at.
Posters and trailers – In addition to several poster designs, the original teaser trailer (complete with Walt Disney Pictures logo) and theatrical trailer are provided. Sadly, the quality is quite blurry and they are cropped to 1.33:1.
Short films Vincent and Frankenweenie – These are, in my opinion, the best special features on the DVD, and it is criminal that they are not advertised more prolifically on the packaging. These are short films that Tim Burton created prior to The Nightmare Before Christmas, and they are both absolutely fascinating to watch.
Running at five and a half minutes, Vincent is the tale of a young boy who wants to be Vincent Price. The story is told in rhyme by a narrator (Vincent Price himself). It uses a stop motion animation style very similar to The Nightmare Before Christmas, and it manages to be very creepy and atmospheric, due in part to it being shot in black and white on low quality 16mm film.
Frankenweenie, which lasts half an hour, is practically a feature in its own right. It is a live action piece featuring a young boy who resurrects his dead dog à la Frankenstein, and features Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern as the boy’s parents. The budget for the film was obviously quite low, but it is incredibly creative and manages to work around its budgetary limitations quite well. It really is an extremely charming and often very funny production, although it does begin to lose momentum towards the end. It is also presented in black and white.
Overall, this is a really nice set of extras, and despite the commentary being rather dry, a wealth of material is provided here that is well worth sifting through. In particular, the two short films could easily have been sold as a separate package and it is excellent that they are provided here as a bonus.
The Nightmare Before Christmas may not have been directed by Burton, but it bears all his hallmarks, most notably that bizarre mixture of adult gothic horror and childish innocence that all his films feature to some extent. As such, this is the perfect Christmas (or Halloween) movie for all the family, and this new Scandinavian DVD release is its best presentation yet, making it a must-buy even for people who already own one of the previous releases.
Interested in another viewpoint? Read Raphael Pour-Hashemi’s review of the UK release here.
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