|Nightmare Before Christmas, The (Special Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 03 October 2000|
"The Nightmare Before Christmas," conceived, designed and co-produced by Tim Burton, remains one of the most astonishing and, in its own black-comic way, one of the loveliest of all holiday movies. It's a highly stylized animated puppet musical -- actually closer to an operetta -- about Halloween and Christmas. It's both free-wheeling and tightly disciplined, ostensibly for children but really for adults, a cheerfully creepy tale of misplaced, misguided but good-hearted ambition, even if that heart is a bit black around the edges.
In the world of this "Nightmare," each holiday comes from a land where it is always that holiday, and Jack Skellington is the king of Halloween. But even though this year's Halloween has been very successful, Jack is melancholy. There is something missing from his life, but he cannot figure out what it is. Wandering in the forest with only his ghost dog companion, Jack falls into Christmas Land. It's vividly colorful (Jack's land is mostly black, gray and orange), covered in snow and peopled with happy little dwarves; there are bright lights, colorful presents, and an all-encompassing sense of joy.
Stunned and delighted, Jack returns to Halloween Land to try to sell his subjects on the idea of Christmas, but no one -- save Sally, the patchwork girl -- seems to get it. Nor, for that matter, does Jack himself.
And then he has his great idea: he will kidnap Sandy Claws -- the name, he's sure, of the ruler of Christmas Land -- and take over Christmas himself, giving children the world over even better presents than Santa himself would have brought them. Halloween-style presents. Three Halloween children, Lock, Shock and Barrel, kidnap Santa and bring him to Halloween Land, but then Santa falls into the hands of Oogie Boogie, the Boogey Man himself. Meanwhile, in a sleigh drawn by reindeer skeletons, a giddy Jack flies off to deliver presents on Christmas Eve.
Burton remains one of the most singular talents in Hollywood, with his own vividly original style and outlook, something of a blend of David Lynch, Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney and Stephen King. His vision is so distinctive that design motifs that are typically Burton's are clearly evident in this plaintive, funny movie, only his sixth feature film, and the first he didn't direct himself. It was directed instead by Henry Selick, who went on to "James and the Giant Peach" and the upcoming "Monkeybone."
Burton sees ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves and all their scary brethren as charming childhood companions; his visual style is angular and gaunt, owing a lot to Edward Gorey, Seuss, Ronald Searle, Carl Barks, Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams and many others. Perhaps the most Tim Burton of all Tim Burton projects was his short film "Vincent," also done in stop-motion puppets, about a little boy who so wants to be Vincent Price (Burton's favorite actor). This superb DVD includes not only "Vincent" but "Frankenweenie," another short Burton made for Disney. In that one, a ten year old suburban kid (ominously named Victor Frankenstein) brings his beloved dog back from the dead. Both shorts are excellent, and a perfect match with "The Nightmare Before Christmas."
"Nightmare" is a brisk, breezy sleighride of a movie, an eye-dazzler and an ear-pleaser, with almost nonstop songs and score entirely written by Danny Elfman, who even sings Jack's songs himself in a voice suggesting he'd be great doing Gilbert & Sullivan. (Jack's spoken lines are by Chris Sarandon.) During the first half hour or so, from the opening until Jack returns from Christmas land, the movie is damned near perfect. Not all the elements work; there's a Mad Scientist (voice of William Hickey), for example, who never blends into the life of Halloween Land, or the movie itself.
The songs by Danny Elfman are good but not exceptional; Elfman seems to be making it up as he goes along -- and the songs, though they're pleasant, and especially well-sung, tend to have a sameness that's a little wearisome after a while.
But Jack himself is a wonderful creation; he's a tall, skinny beanpole with one of the most expressive faces a puppet character has ever had, realized through replacement animation: a completely new head with a change in expression was popped onto his neck for each frame of film. His personality is, to say the least, vivid -- he practically explodes off the screen and sits beside you.
"The Nightmare on Elm Street" was very successful (though short of a full-blown hit); followed by Selick's "James and the Giant Peach" (in which Burton was only distantly involved), they seemed to be the leaders in a revival of stop-motion animation as a technique for full-length movies. But then along came "Toy Story" -- done in CGI and even better as a movie than "Nightmare" -- and stop-motion seemed to be a goner, a technique of the past. But "Chicken Run" has once again revived interest in the technique, and Selick employs it extensively in "Monkeybone."
There are some flaws in "A Nightmare Before Christmas," as mentioned above, and it probably really isn't for kids under about eight or so (what is such a kid to make of a little boy getting a shrunken head for Christmas, or a big snake swallowing a foil Christmas tree?). Even at under eighty minutes, it has a few slow moments; it's also like eating an entire plateful of candy bars -- the visuals are so awesome that it can leave you feeling a little overstuffed.
But these complaints are really pro forma; no movie is perfect, and I'd be dead wrong to suggest that this one is, and remiss in not pointing out what I think are the weaknesses. However, overall, they don't matter; if the movie is to your taste, you're probably going to love it. There have been few movies ever more original, imaginative and distinctive than "The Nightmare Before Christmas," and this DVD is the best way to own it at home.
The sound, for one thing, is superb, making this another great home sound system demo disc, not so much for thunderously loud sounds, but for the imaginative stereo mix, and the richness of detail. Furthermore, there's an outstanding "making-of" documentary, featuring Burton, Selick, and many of the other filmmakers. It emphasizes the painstaking attention to detail, and the sheer long-time effort it took to make this movie.
Several deleted sequences are included, both some that reached the point of stop-motion, and some that never got beyond storyboards. (One of these features a completely different, and surprising, ending.) The commentary track by Selick and cinematographer Pete Kozachik, not surprisingly, emphasizes the technical aspects. There are more than 400 production designs and preliminary models, a storyboard/finished scene comparison, and other features. It's really a jam-packed disc, an ideal holiday present for a DVD-loving friend.