Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" on Blu-ray Disc
by Jim Bray
Finally, the Henry Selick-directed "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, has been done justice for the home theater.
I've loved stop motion animation since I cut my teeth on old Ray Harryhausen films and the original King Kong though, because I wasn't a big Tim Burton fan at the time, I missed "Nightmare" on its original release. But I caught up with it on Laserdisc (anyone want to buy my copy?) and fell in love with it immediately. Now it's one of my all time favorite movies, nearly a desert island title.
Laserdiscs are long dead and I never saw a DVD that did the movie justice. My copy was non-anamorphic (like the laserdisc), which worked fine on a 4x3 TV but which fell short on a 16x9 one because you had to zoom it out to fill the screen, and that added pixilization that made it look as if you were watching the movie through a screen door.
Thank goodness for Blu-ray – for so many reasons. The 1080p high definition disc format is the perfect venue for this marvelous tale of Jack Skellington and his Christmas misadventure, and Disney has done a bang up job on the disc.
The Nightmare Before Christmas tells the story of Jack Skellington, King of Halloween Town, an undead scarecrow-like creature who's the master of his domain. But he's bored. As much as he loves leading his townsfolk – a gaggle of critters from vampires and leeches to rag dolls and, well, a whole bunch of other weird things – to ever higher levels of frightfulness, he wants a new challenge, something he could really get his teeth into if he had real teeth instead of a head made of a hollowed out pumpkin.
Then, on a walk to ruminate and feel sorry for himself, he comes upon a little circle of trees, each of which is decorated by a holiday symbol. The prettiest, a decorated green tree, catches his eye and he notices that it's mounted on a door in the tree trunk. He reaches forward, opens the door, and then….
After a short sequence of him falling through the tree in a manner similar to how Alice entered Wonderland, Jack finds himself in a wintry Christmas Town, with its elves and candy and good feeling all around. He's fascinated and delighted at the marvelous place and the warmth it puts into his insides. And he's determined to figure out how he can translate those feelings into something he can apply to Halloween Town.
Eureka! After much soul searching and scientific investigation, Jack decides to kidnap Christmas, not to prevent it from coming as the Grinch would have done had not his heart been expanded magically, but to do it their way, a new adventure of which he could be proud.
Ah, but after pride comes the fall, and the folk of Halloween Town spend the fall making presents for kids so Jack can deliver them on Christmas Eve. Alas, they just don't get it, thanks to their Halloween mind set: Christmas wreaths are actually living monsters, road kill becomes clothing, a kid's gift box is filled with a severed head.
Such are the makings of a Yuletide disaster – and it isn't because the Halloween Town folk are mean, it's just their job (as the opening song shows clearly) and their mind set: heredity versus environment.
Santa Claus wouldn't sit still for such nonsense, of course, but Jack has sent three of his best trick or treaters to put him in a bag and keep him on ice – an enforced vacation Santa neither needs nor wants. This puts Santa into the "hands" of Oogie Boogie, the Boogeyman, the villain of the piece (Jack isn't a villain, he's just misguided).
Will Christmas be a disaster? Will Santa escape the clutches of the Boogeyman? Will Sally find true happiness or will she fall to pieces in rejection?
All of this plays out via stop motion animation and state-of-the-art (for the time) special effects that are an absolute treat for the eyes. The animation is superb, and when you see water apparently running right beside creatures whose lives are controlled frame by frame, you'll be filled with wonder – unless your imagination is as dead as the creatures of Halloween Town.
It's a lovely story, creepy but funny, light but not empty calories. Despite them being a bunch of gross-looking (for the most part) stop motion puppets, you actually care for the characters and hope everything turns out alright (which, of course, it does in the end).
Then there's Danny Elfman's music and songs. I love musicals, especially old-fashioned Broadway musicals like Oklahoma! and The Music Man. The Nightmare Before Christmas, like Disney's more conventionally animated The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast etc., has the same feel, and Elfman's songs are catchy, funny, and highly memorable. Every time I watch "Nightmare," I have "What's This?", "This is Halloween" and other Nightmarish tunes rolling around my skull for a few days afterward. It would be quite annoying if I didn't love this movie so.
So – how's the Blu-ray?
It's marvelous. Disney has pulled out the stops with this release, including a second disc upon which is a digital copy of the film suitable for computers or (God forbid!) portable devices with their tiny little screens. I don't really care about the digital copy aspect, so concentrated on the Blu-ray and its many interesting supplements.
One thing I noticed is that the movie is now branded as a Disney release, instead of its earlier Touchstone labeling. Perhaps Disney was afraid back then that this movie would be a little too controversial for its family brand; whatever the reason, it doesn't really matter and I mention it only because I found it an interesting change - and it really belongs as a "Disney" title..
Another thing I noticed was the abundance of trailers through which you have to skip individually before you can get to a menu. This is really, really annoying.
The movie itself is presented just as it should be: in 1080p at its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This means that, instead of letterboxing, you get a slight "keyholing" effect that leaves small black bars to the left and right of the picture, but they aren't large or obtrusive and I'd rather see the original aspect ratio used for any film than the Panning&Scanning or zooming used with some films. Fortunately, this appears to be how most, if not all, of the Blu-rays I've seen are done (though this is the first 1.66:1 I've seen) so I have great hope for future releases.
The 1080p picture is about as sharp and clean as you could hope for, with excellent blacks (which comes in handy in Halloween Town, where the palette is basically black, white and orange!). The picture exhibits real depth, making these puppets that were modeled and moved in three dimensions look even more "real" than on previous releases I've seen.
I kid you not. The video image shows you detail on the puppets and sets that was invisible previously, whether it's in the B&W-based Halloween Town, the bright and pastel-ish Christmas Town or the "real world" we see during Jack's unfortunate sleigh ride. It's gorgeous.
The audio is offered in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 and it's broad, enveloping, and directional. The soundstage is filled from wall to wall to wall with music and effects, with voices that are clean and crisp.
One thing I did notice was that the sound track seemed just a tad quiet; I had to crank it up a bit from my usual listening level – but only a bit – before I was happy with its dynamics.
As with so many Disney releases, they've really piled on the extras here as well.
I found particularly interesting the inclusion of Tim Burton's original poem on which he based the movie. Here, it's read by Christopher Lee, a most appropriate choice since Vincent Price is no longer with us.
Speaking of Price, we also get to see "Vincent", Burton's early Disney stop motion short. There's also "Frankenweenie," a half hour Burton short from 1984 starring Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern as the parents of a science whiz who brings his dead dog back to life.
There's also a very interesting "Making of" feature that delves into the stop motion process, designs and concepts behind the movie, as well as the usual type of storyboard, deleted scenes and the like that are nearly de rigueur on discs these days.
"Halloween Town", "Christmas Town" and "The Real World" offer selections of still galleries showing character design, test videos, and the like, of each area of the film. There's also a short storyboard-to-film comparison, some posters, trailers, and an audio commentary by Tim Burton, director Henry Selick and musical guru Danny Elfman.
That isn't all. You also get "What's This? Jack's Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour, promos for the Disney theme park attraction that looks kind of cool (I loved the Haunted Mansion when I was a Disneyland years ago). There's also D-Box motion code for consumers who have D-Box furniture. And there's a quick intro by Tim Burton.
In all, a heckuva great flick that has received a heckuva great Blu-ray disc treatment.
Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, from Walt Disney Home Entertainment
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.