A likeably bizarre idea and flawless design combine in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a twisted revamp of Rankin-Bass by way of Edward Gorey. Based on a story and characters by Burton, this unique entry in the Disney animated canon is equally reliant on the talents of director Henry Selick (a major talent in the dwindling field of stop-motion animation) and composer and lyricist Danny Elfman. This holiday special on crack has become a theatrical and home-video perennial, returning in a cleaned-up 3D version and, most recently, state-of-the-art Blu-ray for home screens.
The story takes place in "the holiday worlds of old," in particular "Halloween Town." There, skeletal Jack Skellington (Chris Sarandon), the Pumpkin King, has grown tired of the same old scares. A walk in the woods leads him to the door of Christmas Town. "What's This?" he sings, in childlike wonderment at the winter wonderland and its cheery holiday trappings. Beguiled, Jack resolves to kidnap "Sandy Claus" and recruit his friends in Halloween Town to deck out Christmas for themselves. Unfortunately, their irrepressible ghoulishness threatens to ruin Christmas and send Jack into a deeper spiral of depression, unless patchwork girl Sally (Catherine O'Hara) can light the way with the torch she carries for the oblivious Jack.
The storytelling in this 77-minute film can feel a bit logy at times (and the character development a bit shallow), but the animation is always rapturous. The imaginative, heavily stylized character designs include a mad scientist with a giant cranium (who tries to keep Sally locked away), a clown with a tear-away face, a literally two-faced mayor (a smiling face spins around to reveal a grimacing one as his mood befits), Jack's shimmering ghost dog Zero, and a trio of young mischief-makers named Lock, Shock, and Barrel (Paul Reubens, O'Hara, and Elfman). The subversive humor and scary images aren't for the very young or the nightmare-prone, but most kids will recognize and love how the harmless Charles Addams-style morbidity is getting away with murder.
Like a classic storybook, The Nightmare Before Christmas is more visual than verbal, but it has its basis in a long poem written by Burton, and Elfman's lyrics wonderfully capture Jack's obsessive dream of passion. The film's ten songs give the story an operatic quality that compliments Selick and Burton's Gothic visual density. The ultimate message to kids to "know your role" might seem limiting, but in its strange way, like most of Burton's films, The Nightmare Before Christmas affirms that it's okay for kids, most especially the misfits, to be who they are.
UPDATE: Below you'll find my review of the initial Blu-ray Collector's Edition of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, but Disney has now gone one (dimension) better with its Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy special edition of the film. For all but the Blu-ray 3D image, refer to the below review. The new Blu-ray 3D presentation is, in a word, awesome, and 3D TV owners won't want to be without this ultimate presentation of the film. The picture quality remains outstanding in the 3D transfer, which obviously adds a further layer of depth to the image. Most importantly, the image soundly avoids 3D pitfalls like crosstalk: it's an impressively stable image. Since the 3D version is a product of conversion rather than native 3D photography, the image doesn't feature screen-breaching imagery of objects appearing to reach toward the viewer; rather, the 3D adds to the fullness of the three-dimensional models used in the stop-motion animation and, even more so, the depth of field of the characters in the sets. With this beaut of a 3D transfer, the Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy special edition becomes the definitive release of the film: with all relevant viewing platforms represented, it's a decidedly sound investment.
Disney sends home a phenomenal transfer and an ideal package of extras for its Blu-ray Collector's Edition of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Blu-ray includes only one nominal exclusive bonus feature (the 18-second "All-New Blu-ray Exclusive Tim Burton Movie Introduction"), but it's the phenomenal transfer, goregeous in its fine detail, that makes the Blu-ray essential (a few of the bonus features also get the HD treatment). The soundtrack likewise gets a definitive treatment, in 7.1 TrueHD surround sound that works every angle of your home theatre setup.
Just about all of the special features from the 2000 special edition DVD as well as several new features being released on a concurrent 2008 DVD release find their way onto Blu-ray. There's an all-new audio commentary by Burton, Henry Selick, and Danny Elfman. Though recorded separately, the three work together through the magic of editing to cover plenty of fascinating details about the film's development and execution, beginning with the inspirations of Rankin-Bass, Ronald Searle, Dr. Seuss, and Ray Harryhausen and proceeding to Elfman's musical collaboration with Burton and Selick's work with the animators.
The new HD feature "What's This? Jack's Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour" comes with an optional trivia track and can be viewed in an "On Track" (7:14) and "Off Track" (37:25) version. Though purists may cringe at how Disney Imagineers have tinkered with the Haunted Mansion attraction for the days leading up to Christmas, this feature is undeniably interesting. The "On Track" version gives us a basically uninterrupted tour of the attraction, while the "Off Track" version intersperses behind-the-scenes interviews with current and former Imagineers and comparisons to the original 1970 ride. Great stuff.
Also in HD is "Tim Burton's Original Poem Narrated by Christopher Lee" (11:37). This is an essential feature for a special edition of this film, so it's nice to finally have it, with Lee's rumblng bass and animation based on Burton's original concept art. The poem is useful to see what story elements came direct from Burton, and which were developed to flesh out the film.
Burton fans will be pleased to find included the two legendary, career-launching short films he made while on the Disney payroll: the live-action "Frankenweenie" (30:05) and the animated "Vincent" (5:55). It's a shame that both are presented in standard definition, but they're very welcome nonetheless. The 1984 "Frankenweenie" tells the twisted-sweet story of a boy (Barret Oliver of D.A.R.Y.L.) and his electrically-resurrected dog. Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern play the parents, with Jason Hervey, Paul Bartel, and Joseph Maher amongst the supporting players. The uncut version here includes an all-new "Introduction" (:33) in which Burton reveals that he's working on a stop-motion feature of Frankenweenie. "Vincent" is a poetic tribute to Vincent Price (and a semi-autobiographical gloss on Burton's outcast childhood) narrated by Price himself.
"The Making of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas" (24:44) examines every aspect of the film's pre-production and production, from conception and design to storyboard to set and character construction to the shoot itself. Burton, Selick, Elfman, co-producer Kathleen Gavin and a dozen of the film's artisans go on record.
The extras keep on coming with Deleted Storyboards (2:56 with "Play All" option), Deleted Animated Sequences (5:06 with "Play All"), and The Worlds of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a design breakdown of Halloween Town, Christmas Town and The Real World offering character designs, animation tests, and concept art. We also get a Storyboard to Film Comparison (3:47), Posters (:25), the Teaser Trailer (1:43) and Trailer (1:26), as well as previews for five other Disney titles. Do your kids (or yourself) a favor and add this tribute to wild creativity to the shelf.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer