"Boys and girls of every age
Wouldn't you like to see something strange?"
As he's fond of recounting, Tim Burton got his start in the movie business at Disney, but the job didn't stick. Working as an uncredited third-string animator on movies like 'The Fox and the Hound' just wasn't what he wanted to do with his career. During his time there, he'd written a holiday poem, a macabre twist on Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" featuring a Halloween skeleton who kidnaps Santa and makes a horrible mess of Christmas, and pitched it as a traditionally animated project, perhaps a short for TV. The studio thought it would be too scary for kids and passed. Fast forward a few years, and his breakout success with 'Pee-Wee's Big Adventure', 'Beetlejuice', and of course 'Batman' had everyone in Hollywood wanting to work with Tim Burton. The House of Mouse came calling, and suddenly that holiday picture they wouldn't touch earlier was a go, reimagined as an ambitious stop-motion animated feature film.
As is no doubt familiar by now to anyone with children, 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' recounts the tale of spindly Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, whose unrivaled success as the master of spooky delights hasn't filled the void in his life. He tires of the same tricking and treating year after year, and wants something more, but doesn't know exactly what. The unexpected discovery of a portal to neighboring Christmas Town fires up his imagination. Meaning well but not really thinking through the consequences, Jack hatches a plan to take over the Christmas celebration, giving the current guy in charge (a big red fella by the name of "Sandy Claws") a little vacation. Little does he realize it, but Jack's ideas of gift giving and holiday mirth don't exactly mesh with the recognized spirit of Christmas.
In its completed form, 'Nightmare' plays like a demented Rankin & Bass holiday special, by way of a German Expressionist silent film, a classic Universal horror picture, and a Hollywood musical. The movie is a giddy mix of pop culture influences, and yet clearly, unmistakably Tim Burton through and through. Although technically directed by animator Henry Selick (later of 'James and the Giant Peach'), Burton created the characters, wrote the story treatment, and designed just about everything in the picture. Pretty much the only thing he didn't do was actually manipulate the puppets frame by frame. The visual and thematic sensibilities are all his. The story of a misunderstood loner searching for meaning and acceptance in his life is a familiar concern from many, if not all of Burton's films, from 'Pee-Wee' to 'Edward Scissorhands' and beyond.
The intricate stop-motion animation is a wondrous thing to behold, the camera restlessly swooping through the twisted Gothic sets and past all manner of colorful creatures that go bump in the night. The characters of this fairy tale, no matter how bizarre or even grotesquely designed, are entirely endearing: vampires that carry little umbrellas to shield them from the sun, an oaf with an axe stuck in his skull, a (literally) two-faced politician bemoaning, "I'm only an elected official here; I can't make decisions by myself!" The humor is clever and easily appreciated by both children and adults. The songs by frequent Burton collaborator Danny Elfman are soaringly operatic and infectiously catchy. The story delivers a valuable moral lesson without ever turning preachy.
The film runs a brisk 76 minutes (only 72 without credits) and feels a little rushed in places. Jack's emotional development is perhaps a little too conveniently expedited, and there's an unexplained plot hole as far as how he knew that Santa was being held captive by villain Oogie Boogie. The traditional Disney romance between Jack and rag doll Sally feels shoehorned in, as though mandated by the studio. In fact, to be honest about it, the movie is just a little bit sexist, its only major female character given nothing to do except pine for her boyfriend the entire picture. But that's the jaded critic in me talking. 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' is a movie made for children, and frankly it's wonderful.
Released under the Touchstone banner because Disney CEO Michael Eisner deemed it "too dark for kids" and didn't want it to bear the Walt Disney Pictures logo, 'Nightmare' opened in the Fall of 1993 to tremendous critical acclaim. The movie didn't have the box office power of Disney's 'The Lion King' or 'Aladdin', but performed quite well and has gone on to become a holiday classic that just happens to bridge two holidays, making for a great treat to watch at both Halloween and Christmas every year.
'The Nightmare Before Christmas' comes to Blu-ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment (a division of Buena Vista Home Entertainment) as a 2-disc Blu-ray + DisneyFile Digital Copy Collector's Edition packaged in a cardboard slipcover over the keepcase. Why the studio has chosen to release a movie about Halloween and Christmas in August is anyone's guess.
The film has been fully rebranded from the Touchtone to the Walt Disney label, both on the packaging and on the disc. Even the movie's opening credits have been changed from "Touchstone Pictures Presents" to "Walt Disney Pictures Presents."
The Blu-ray is Java-enabled and slow to load in a standalone BD player. To prolong the startup delay even further, the disc has no fewer than six obnoxious promos and trailers that must be individually skipped before getting to the main menu (the Top Menu command is disabled). But hey, I'm sure that the ad for 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua' will never grow old, right?
'Nightmare' was first released on DVD back in 1997 with a non-anamorphic letterbox transfer and no bonus features. For the Special Edition re-release in 2000, Disney chose to recycle the same non-anamorphic transfer. Some foreign territories saw an anamorphically-enhanced remaster, but we in North America have been stuck with a soft and artifact-ridden disc that didn't even live up to the modest potential of the Standard-Def DVD format. As such, this brand new 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 Blu-ray has been a long time coming and is a very welcome arrival indeed. The results are sure to please.
The movie retains its 1.66:1 aspect ratio with small pillarbox bars on the sides of the 16:9 frame. The picture is incredibly sharp and vivid, revealing a world of detail never before seen on home video. It feels like you've been placed inches away from the puppets to bask in the complexity of their design and execution. The movie's style revels in darkness, and the transfer's contrast range is expertly rendered with deep black levels and plenty of shadow detail, clearly delineating the black of Jack's clothing from the night around him. Brighter parts of the frame are handled just as well. The candy colors of Christmas Town and the garish neon and black light of Oogie Boogie's lair leap off the screen with surreal vibrancy.
Although Disney has been circulating a 3D version of 'Nightmare Before Christmas' to theaters for the past few years, the movie was originally produced in traditional 2D. The 3D conversion was applied digitally after-the-fact. The Blu-ray makes no attempt to recreate the 3D effect, which wouldn't work well on home video anyway. Even so, the transfer has an excellent sense of depth and dimensionality.
Unlike Burton's animated follow-up 'Corpse Bride', which was photographed using digital still cameras, 'Nightmare' was shot on 35mm film. There's a mild amount of film grain in the Blu-ray image, and an occasional speckle here and there on the source elements. Neither is distracting at all. However, it must be noted that despite their many other similarities, the two movies have some stylistic differences. 'Nightmare' isn't as clean and "digital" as 'Corpse Bride', and its photography features a lot of diffuse lighting that intentionally softens the image and leaves a subtle glow around the characters and environments. This is not a transfer flaw. It's a deliberate artistic decision.
I don't have much to complain about here, but I will say that at certain points I felt that the Blu-ray looked a slight bit "processed," as though it had some digital filtering performed to reduce the grain. But don't mistake this as a serious problem. The picture has a ton of detail and is never mushy or waxy like some recent DNR disasters that have been appearing on Blu-ray (see: 'Gangs of New York'). During the scene where Jack is silhouetted against the full moon, I saw what appeared to be some very minor edge ringing around him, but I checked the scene on two different displays and the artifact (if it really is one) was virtually invisible on one of them. Overall, there are no significant issues with unwanted edge enhancement or other digital artifacts. Still, the disc left me with a nagging feeling that it's a hair shy of perfection. That's just me being nit-picky. 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' looks great.
The audio, available in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (or "Tru HD" as the package art misspells it), is also a winner. The soundtrack is broad, expansive, and directional, filling the entire soundstage with music and discrete effects from every direction. Dialogue and song vocals are crisp and clear. In a musical like this, I listen for the sort of fidelity where you can pick out every instrument in the score. I didn't necessarily get that experience here, but the track is pleasingly warm and spacious regardless. The music strums out a few bass notes now and again, but low-end activity never hits the deep registers. If not quite the finest audio available on Blu-ray, the 'Nightmare Before Christmas' is extremely satisfying.
The Special Edition DVD that was released in 2000 contained a bounty of supplemental material. The Blu-ray retains almost everything from that disc.
Additionally, the Blu-ray shares the following new bonus features with the 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD being released simultaneously:
Also included are some trailers for unrelated Disney titles.
HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?
The Blu-ray has only one exclusive feature, and it's nothing special.
That's it for exclusive material. I see this as a real missed opportunity to incorporate "Bonus View" picture-in-picture features.
The Cutting Room Floor: What Didn't Make the Blu-ray?
The Special Edition DVD had an audio commentary by Henry Selick and cinematographer Pete Kozachik. Some of Selick's remarks were incorporated into the new group commentary, but many were not, and Kozachik was dropped entirely.
Back in the day, Disney released a deluxe Laserdisc box set for 'The Nightmare Before Christmas' that included some additional material that's never been seen again, such as a longer version of the "Making of" documentary (it ran 43 min.), some animated commercial bumpers and a short film that Selick made for MTV, and an even more extensive collection of still galleries. The Laserdisc also came packaged with a lovely hardcover book titled "Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas: The Film, The Art, The Vision." The book shouldn't be too difficult to acquire separately, but it sure won't fit in this tiny Blu-ray case.
Admittedly, Disney is pushing things by setting such a high MSRP for a catalog title. It also stings that (unlike other studios) they are charging extra for the Digital Copy feature that many viewers will probably never use. In Canada, separate editions of the movie are available on Blu-ray, either with or without the Digital Copy for different price points, but we in the U.S. are given no such option. I hate to say it, but we can probably expect them to treat all of their classic animation properties similarly. Nonetheless, this is 'The Nightmare Before Christmas', and I can't imagine passing up the chance to own it in High Definition. Once you get past the pricing issue, the Blu-ray has lovely video and excellent sound, and oodles of terrific bonus features. This is a must own if ever there was one.