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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 10/4/00

The Nightmare Before Christmas

review by Greg Suarez of The Digital Bits

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Special Edition

Encoded with DTS & Dolby Digital 5.1 Digital Surround
The Nightmare Before Christmas
Special Edition - 2000 (2000) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): C+/A+

Audio Ratings (DD/DTS): A/A+

Specs and Features

76 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (one layer for the feature, the other for the supplements), Amaray keep case packaging, commentary track with director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik, deleted scenes with introduction by the director, "making-of" featurette, storyboard-to-film comparisons, still frame gallery of concept art and character designs, animation tests, Tim Burton’s early films Vincent and Frankenweenie, theatrical trailer and teaser trailer, theatrical trailer for James and the Giant Peach, film-themed menu screens with animation and music, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and DTS 5.1), French (DD 2.0), subtitles: Spanish, Closed Captioned

The Nightmare Before Christmas The Nightmare Before Christmas
1993 (1997) - Touchstone (Buena Vista)

Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/A/D-

Specs and Features

76 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.66:1), single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, scene access (20 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), French (DD 2.0), subtitles: Spanish, Closed Captioned

Jack Skellington (singing): But year after year, it’s the same routine,
And I grow so weary of the sound of screams.
For I Jack, The Pumpkin King,
Have grown so tired of the same old thing.

Every once in a great while, the stars and planets are in perfect harmony. The Heavens part, Muse sings her enchanting melody and inspiration is born. Behold The Nightmare Before Christmas - an example of the birth of a truly original and groundbreaking epiphany from the fertile and haunted place that is Tim Burton’s imagination. Mix a little bit of Dr. Seuss with a dollop of German Expressionism, and you have a real classic… and yes, I’m using the word “classic” here.

Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town… the place where Halloween lives 365 days a year (it’s the place Halloween is born). Jack becomes bored with the yearly Halloween routine, and feels that somehow his life could have more meaning - as if there’s something else out there for him. In a wooded area far from Halloween Town, he stumbles upon a mysterious doorway to Christmas Town, the place where Christmas comes from. After witnessing the Christmas joy and spirit, Jack becomes enchanted with the jubilant feeling, and decides that it’s his destiny to become the new King of Christmas. After training the ghouls, ghosts, witches and vampires that live in Halloween Town on the Christmas philosophy, Jack kidnaps Santa Claus and takes over the role of the Jolly Fat Guy in Red (even though Jack is ironically nothing more than a skeleton). Jack’s frightening brand of Christmas sees December 25th twisted into a scary and distorted combination of the two holidays, that leaves the children of the world terrified. Jack means well, but let’s face it, all he has never known is Halloween. And severed heads, snakes and evil toys don’t exactly leave the children of the world singing It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Will Jack come to his senses and save Christmas, or will the holiday forever be a freakish nightmare?

The Nightmare Before Christmas is filmed in classic Rankin-Bass type stop-motion animation, and took quite a long time to complete. Never before had such a large-scale stop-motion film been done, which definitely makes this movie unique. The stop-motion technique disconnects the audience from more traditional methods of filmmaking, giving them an otherworldly feel, yet has much more charming eeriness than live-action or traditional cell animation. This film definitely would not have had the same effect if it were made any other way. The atmosphere and sets are very creepy and perfectly set the mood for the movie. Halloween Town’s color palette is dreary and dark, giving it a black and white look, while Christmas town is bright and colorful. Many of the sets have a very textured look, giving them what the filmmakers call a "sketched look" - as if it was a live-action storybook.

There is plenty of bold humor and twisted visions here (not too twisted, as this is a PG film, but still very strange). The story is simple, yet thoroughly intriguing and completely original, and the dialog is entertaining. But Danny Elfman’s music is the real star of this film - this is probably some of the strongest work of his career. The amazing thing about the music, is that it’s not quite Halloween and not quite Christmas. Much like Jack’s vision, the line between the holiday moods in these songs is blurred. There are many subtleties in the in the lyrics and music that beg for repeat attention. Songs like This is Halloween and Kidnap the Sandy Claws are deliciously humorous, and just plain fun, while Jack’s Lament and Sally’s Song are quite delicate and beautiful. Both kids and adults will find this soundtrack marvelous, as the humor is perfectly balanced for both generations to enjoy.

Want to hear something ridiculous? After releasing this film once on DVD already with a mediocre, non-anamorphic transfer, Buena Vista has decided, three years later, to re-release The Nightmare Before Christmas as a feature-packed Special Edition... WITHOUT a new transfer! Yep - this is the very same 1.66:1, non-anamorphic transfer from the 1997 standard edition disc (which was one of Buena Vista's very first DVD releases). While the video is okay for a non-16x9 enhanced picture, it still has the same soft image and annoying NTSC video noise that plagued the first release... which an anamorphic transfer would have cured. As I said before, the color scheme of this film is very important to the overall mood of the story. Thankfully, the colors on this disc do not disappoint - Halloween Town has nice shades of gray and deep blacks, while Christmas Town is effectively brighter and much more colorful. Compression artifacting is only rarely visible and fine picture detail is acceptable, but lacking, in some of the darker scenes. Any way you slice it, the lack of a new anamorphic transfer is REALLY a missed opportunity by Buena Vista, and a lot of fans of this great film are going to be very disappointed.

The original DVD release of this film contained only a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, while this new Special Edition contains two 5.1 soundtracks - one from Dolby and one from DTS. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on the new Special Edition appears to be the same high-caliber mix used for the first DVD release. The front soundstage is gigantic and wide during musical passages, flooding the listening space with rich, full sound. The music is smooth and never harsh or strained. There’s a definite sense of airiness and depth to the mix. Low-end fills in the bottom octaves for the score and surround usage lends a nice sense of space and envelopment. Several nifty directional sound effects find their way into the rear channels as well. The DTS 5.1 soundtrack sounds very, very similar to the Dolby track, but excels with a slight bit more low-end tightness and instrumental/vocal definition. These differences are definitely subtle. Whether you have a fully DTS-compatible system or Dolby Digital only, this soundtrack will definitely put a smile on your face.

While the first DVD release of The Nightmare Before Christmas contained only the theatrical trailer, the new Special Edition has that and tons more. Accompanying the trailer are the film’s teaser trailer and a trailer for James and the Giant Peach. There's also a commentary track with director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik (while this film is based on Tim Burton’s ideas, vision and artwork, he only produced and consulted due to his commitment to Warner Bros. to direct Batman Returns). The track is entertaining in a very technical and informative way. There aren’t many anecdotes or stories - just a lot of information about how the movie was made and where many of the ideas originated. About three-fourths of the way through the film, the track slows down and one gets the impression that the men ran out of new things to talk about. Still, fans will really want to give this track a listen so they can learn the many secrets and tricks used to create and execute the movie. Next up are two sets of deleted scenes, all introduced by the director. Three of the scenes were never animated, but are presented in storyboard form, while the other four had been fully completed. A majority of the scenes are extended or alternate scenes, including the unused surprise identity of Oogie Boogie. On the subject of storyboards, included are some storyboard-to-film comparisons with the storyboard on the top half the screen, while the finished product plays in conjunction below it.

A behind-the-scenes featurette that runs approximately 25 minutes is also included in the supplements. This featurette is very interesting and it focuses on the production of the film by showing how the puppets were created from start-to-finish, the painstaking work of animating them frame-by-frame and how the sets were designed and lit. There are interviews with Burton, Selick and many of the animators. The featurette also covers the motion control camera used in filming to give the movie a more contemporary and exciting feel. Traditionally, with stop-motion animation, the camera cannot be moved around the characters as they are animated. But with their new computer-controlled camera, the filmmakers could pan the camera around the sets as the characters moved, just as one would in a live-action film. This is a must-see featurette that is as educational as it is interesting. Next on the list of supplements is a gallery of character and set concept art, including some animation tests for several of the lead characters. The animation tests are early pre-production footage of the unfinished puppets moving and interacting with their environment to make sure that they are effective enough to use.

Probably the most anticipated of all the supplements are Tim Burton’s two short films, Vincent (1982) and Frankenweenie (1984). Both are in black-and-white full-frame. Vincent is Burton’s tribute to his long-time idol, Vincent Price, and the featurette is actually narrated by the Master of Horror himself. It’s a highly imaginative little tale about a 7-year-old boy, named Vincent, who adores Vincent Price and imagines that he is his idol. Shot mostly in stop-motion, the approximately 6-minute featurette is written in rhyme. It's a real treat to watch. Frankenweenie is a modern interpretation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, except the mad scientist is a little boy, Victor, and the monster is his beloved dog, Sparky, that was killed by a car. Young Victor is heartbroken, but after learning about electricity’s effect on the nervous system, he decides to dig up his old friend and bring him back to life. You can imagine where it goes from there. Sparky accidentally gets loose in the neighborhood and terrorizes the people on the block with his freakish appearance. The ending is an amusing homage to the 1931 Universal Studios version of Frankenstein, with a slightly different outcome. Frankenweenie is about 30 minutes long, and has a familiar cast that includes Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall. It’s definitely geared more towards children, and lacks the sheer originality and uniqueness of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Vincent, but is still fun to watch as part of Burton’s roots as a filmmaker.

How many more positive things can be said about The Nightmare Before Christmas? Words like “brilliant,” “inspired,” and “masterpiece” can be tossed about all day, but they’re only words. Watch this film for yourself to wholly experience the wonderful story, music and delightful characters. Without the inclusion of a new anamorphic transfer, this disc falls short of being the "ultimate edition" of this film. But fans have finally been treated to all of the supplements they could ever want (or need), along with a reference-caliber DTS 5.1 soundtrack - not too shabby. If you like Tim Burton's work, you'll definitely want to rush out and snatch this disc up, simply to own his early films on DVD. So what are you waiting for? Close your browser, climb out of your crypt, and run like hell to the closest DVD store to pick up your own copy!

Greg Suarez

The Nightmare Before Christmas: Special Edition

The Nightmare Before Christmas (movie only)

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