The Nightmare Before Christmas

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Still Galleries, Storyboard Comparisons, Bonus Films, Trailers

In our high-tech world, it is very easy for things to become obsolete. Your computer, appliances, home-theater system may be the cutting edge of technology one day, and totally incompatible the next. The same goes for DVDs as well. There is a long history with home video companies (dating back to VHS and laserdisc days) to constantly upgrade their products. Well, I have some bad news for those of you who own "The Nightmare Before Christmas" DVD which was released in December 1997. It’s now obsolete. Way obsolete. Buena Vista Home Video has just released a Special Edition of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" that totally blows the old version out of the water.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" comes from the mind of director Tim Burton. The story is set in Halloween-town. It’s up to the citizens of Halloween-town to plan and execute the Halloween holiday, and make sure that it’s very scary. Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, sung by Danny Elfman), a lanky figure with a skull for a head, is the leader of Halloween-town. One day, while wandering in the forest, Jack finds a series of doors, each one leading to a different holiday. Jack opens the door marked with a Christmas tree and is whisked off to Christmas-town. (I always thought that Christmas-town was McAdenville, North Carolina!) Coming from the dark streets of Halloween-town, Jack is mesmerized by the bright lights and colors of Christmas. Jack decides that Santa Claus should take the year off and Jack will oversee Christmas. But, since Jack only knows how to scare people and doesn’t know the first thing about making and handing out presents, everyone is in for a big surprise.

It’s the simple, yet brilliant premise at the center of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" which makes the film work. The notion of whole towns built around major holidays is a fascinating one, and this imaginative plot device immediately sucks in the viewer. (Of course, we’re left wanting to see the other towns. Is Thanksgiving-town run by turkeys?) Along with the intriguing plot, we are offered many wonderful characters. Despite the fact that we are watching puppets, each character is given a real personality and you care about each one. Jack Skellington walks the line between hero and anti-hero at times (after all, he does almost wreck Christmas), but we know that deep-down, Jack is just trying to do the right thing and this makes his character all the more lovable.

The other facet of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" that makes it a classic is the animation. This was the first feature-length stop-motion film and the 3-D art form gives the characters a depth and feel that cel-animation would have lacked. Through this pain-staking process, the animators have given us a truly unique vision and have been able to create a world that we’ve never seen before.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" itself is presented in a letterbox format at an aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This transfer is not <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TVs, which could be considered the only real drawback to this edition, but at a 1.66:1 aspect ratio there is only very little to be gained through <$16x9,anamorphic> encoding. However the overall image quality is the same as on the previous release, which is a drawback, as technologies have evolved quite a bit since then and a new transfer would have resulted in an improved image definition. Still, the image is generally clear, giving us a crisp edition of the film. The image shows no grain or noise, and this gives the puppets even more life. The thing that really makes this transfer striking, are the colors. Halloween-town is done in black, white, and orange, and this stark landscape looks great on this transfer, with the true blacks giving extraordinary depth and shading to the image. In contrast, the colorful palette of Christmas-town, seems to leap off of the screen with its very sharp reds and blues. One of the best things about animated films should be the colors and justice has certainly been done to "The Nightmare Before Christmas".

There are two primary audio tracks on "The Nightmare Before Christmas" DVD, a <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 track and a <$DTS,DTS> 5.1 track. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds excellent, offering a very wide soundfield that makes great use of the surround sound speakers. This is another Disney release that offers very specific sound-speaker placement, thus enhancing the overall viewing experience. The dialogue and sound effects are very clear, never competing for dominance. But, the best part of the audio experience is the clarity with which Danny Elfman’s wonderful songs are presented. The DTS 5.1 track adds some additional definition to the overall mix, but is not as radically improved as you may expect. Still, the bottom end of the sonic spectrum feels tighter and the reproduction of the intricate orchestration of the score reveals additional tonal textures that seem absent in their clarity in the Dolby Digital mix.

This Special Edition is loaded with extra features and most of them were included on the Laserdisc Special Edition of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" which was released in 1994. The extras are kicked off by an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik. This commentary is very interesting and informative, but, as you can imagine, it’s very technical. After all, they don’t have any anecdotes about what the actors were like on the set, now do they? Still, the duo speak throughout the film, giving us a scene specific guided tour through the production of the film and details about all of the work that went into making the puppets come to life.

Accenting this commentary is a 25-minute featurette that looks at the making of the film. This segment gives us a very detailed look at how the film made the jump from Tim Burton’s imagination to the screen. There are interviews with many of the crew members and a great deal of footage from the set. The only thing that this making-of featurette doesn’t include, are interviews with the actors who provided the voices for the characters.

Continuing the trend of looking into the making of the film, there are various still galleries, which offer over 450 images, mostly consisting of character design and concept art. There are individual galleries for many of the main characters, showing early design sketches and for some, early test footage. (See Jack Skellington run across the screen over and over!) Once again, this gives us an idea of the staggering amount of work, which was done on this film. Along these same lines, we have side-by-side storyboard to film comparisons, showing that the filmmakers did a good job of getting their original visions to the screen.

As with any film, there were scenes that didn’t make the final cut. The DVD offers four animated deleted scenes, including the oft-rumored scene in which the vampires play ice-hockey with Tim Burton’s head. (It’s very brief, but funny.) These scenes are introduced by Henry Selick. But, the really interesting tidbits come in the storyboards for scenes that were planned, but abandoned. Two of them are extensions to musical numbers, but one is an alternate ending, of sorts, which gives a new identity to Oogie Boogie. Selick introduces these clips as well, but doesn’t elaborate on why this ending was dropped. I actually like this ending and it would’ve tied up the film much better.

From the marketing side, we have two trailers for "The Nightmare Before Christmas". One is the original theatrical trailer, which is presented full-frame. This is much better than the home-video trailer, which appeared on the first DVD incarnation of the film. There is also what is labeled as a "teaser trailer", but looks more like something that would be sent to distributors to hype the film. The interesting thing about this trailer is that it bears the Disney logo, not Touchstone. (You probably know that Disney decided to release the film through their Touchstone arm because it was too dark to be a Disney film.) We also have the theatrical trailer for "James and the Giant Peach", which is presented full-frame. There is also a still gallery featuring some of the theatrical posters for the film.

While all of these special features are very nice, the best overall feature are the early films of Tim Burton, which offer a glimpse into the history of Burton’s style. First, we have "Vincent" a 7-minute black and white short about a young boy named Vincent who thinks he’s Vincent Price. The piece is actually narrated by Vincent Price himself, who reads the Seussian words of Tim Burton. The short features stop-motion animation and lets us know immediately that the Tim Burton style that we all know has been in place since the beginning of his career. (Also, note all of the "Family Dog" characters in the film.) In short, "Vincent" is a pure delight.

The other film, "Frankenweenie" is a 30-minute short, which is a homage/parody of "Frankenstein". This black-and-white short is very cute and charming, and once again, gives us glimpses of things to come from Burton. But, it’s oddly paced and drags in the middle. Nonetheless, it’s always a pleasure to see how a director’s vision evolved over the years and "Frankenweenie" clearly shows Burton preference of gothic themes and his full understanding of their workings.

With "The Nightmare Before Christmas", Disney has brought us one of their best Special Edition DVDs yet. This amazing and charming film has been giving the treatment that it deserves, featuring crisp visuals and great sound, and the supplemental material will tell you everything that you’ve ever wanted to know about the making of the film. So, if you own the first release of the film, it’s time to trade up for the new model.