Before The Corpse Bride ever put on her wedding gown there was The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film years later still superior in every way.
The idea that started The Nightmare Before Christmas is one that is familiar to most of us who have ever been in a store during those perilous final few months of the year. With Halloween drawing to a close, what should take the place of the drab goblins and ghouls, but the bright festivity of Christmas. But what if instead of being replaced on the shelves of stores everywhere, Halloween invaded Christmas?
That’s exactly what happens in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The Pumpkin King, Jack Skellington, who every year leads Halloweentown in a successful holiday, has found himself weary of the same old thing. Following a particularly depressing Halloween for Jack, he wanders in the woods and finds the entryway to Christmastown. The idea of a bright, cheery holiday where people exchange gifts appeals to Jack, and so he sets the people of Halloweentown on the task of creating the holiday in their own special way. Only the Frankenstein-monster-like creation Sally, who holds a crush for Jack, can see how truly disastrous the results will be when vampires, werewolves, and witches try their hand at mistletoe and mirth.
Just the very idea of Nightmare Before Christmas is a fascinating, original concept, and not something one would expect from the House of Mouse (who started the project in Disney Animation but quickly moved it to their new, more adult oriented Touchstone Pictures). In the hands of the man who reinvented Batman and brought the Vincent Price-styled world of Edward Scissorhands to life, the concept seems like sheer brilliance. Halloween and Christmas colliding in a hilarious fashion, envisioned as only a madman like Tim Burton can. However, while Burton is responsible for the character design and original story, and worked hand in hand with composer Danny Elfman to create the right feel for the music, Burton did not direct Nightmare Before Christmas, which might make all the difference between its long lasting cultish success, and The Corpse Bride. Burton is an excellent idea man, but the pacing of stop-motion animation may not be his forte. Luckily here Henry Selick (who went on to do Burton’s next stop-motion animation film James and the Giant Peach as well) proves he’s more then skilled in making this method of storytelling work. As a result, the movie is constantly at motion, keeping the audience trapped under it’s spell. From the moment it starts, Nightmare doesn’t let go.
Unlike Burton’s newer tale, the outlandish characters and environment of The Nightmare Before Christmas almost automatically lend themselves to the outlet of stop-motion animation. When one considers that, for most of us, Rankin-Bass stop motion specials like “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” are happy annual memories of Christmas, creating Nightmare with that same technology seems like the most logical step. While, at times, the stop-motion models do appear like toys in appearance, the whole expression of the story feels right being told in this manner, and the impressively detailed visual styles of Halloweentown vs. Christmastown makes the almost obsolete manner of stop-motion artistry seem perfect.
However it’s not just the method that makes Nightmare Before Christmas great. It’s a combination of interesting, detailed, unique characters, an original concept for the story, and immediately memorable musical numbers. It’s hard to leave a viewing of Nightmare Before Christmas without humming one of the more catchy numbers like, “What’s This” or “This is Halloween”, and the tunes are instantly recognizable when they are used in the backgrounds of other film’s trailers. Just the fact that they are used so often in that capacity is a testimony to how good the music is.
Enough time has gone by that The Nightmare Before Christmas can probably now be solidly labeled a “classic”. In my household, as well as many others, it’s now another holiday tradition just like its Rankin-Bass predecessors. The only question I still haven’t settled is whether to watch it at Halloween, Christmas, or both.
Like most of the other films Disney keeps perpetually released, Nightmare suffered from the early Disney-DVD syndrome. The first edition of Nightmare Before Christmas was over priced, with a bare minimum of bonus materials. Fortunately Buena Vista Home Entertainment eventually saw the error of their ways (or the cash they were leaving in customer’s pockets), and decided to embrace DVD technology. The result is this fantastic “Special Edition” with a brilliant, anamorphic transfer of the film, and some great bonus material.
First let me say, there is a reason why some people work in animation and behind the camera lens. In my experience, most of these people want to tell stories, but are too embarrassed or shy to be in a more visible location. What this means is that they don’t make great people to add commentary to a movie either. Henry Selick and Director of Photography Pete Kozachic offer their commentary on the film, however he two never really interact, and the commentary cuts between them. I have the feeling two separate commentaries were recorded and someone realized neither one was interesting enough on its own so the two were combined. Fortunately Selick and the rest of the crew are much more animated (pun intended) for the behind the scenes featurette, which provides a great look at everything that goes into a stop-motion animation movie.
Several deleted scenes are included, which are always hit-or-miss for an animated film, since they usually require you to use more of your imagination since they aren’t fully rendered. Here the deleted scenes are divided up into storyboarded scenes that were never animated, and animated deleted scenes, although even the animated scenes have some storyboarded segments. None of them really add depth to the movie, although it is funny to see an alternate take on a scene where some Halloweentown hockey players are hitting around Tim Burton’s severed head. Also interesting is an alternate ending (storyboarded but abandoned before animation) where the mysterious Oogie Boogie is revealed to be someone else.
More interesting then anything else on the DVD though, are two of Tim Burton’s early Disney short films: “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie”. “Vincent” shows the true roots of both of Burton’s stop-motion features, with the creepy vibe both movies share, and the misshapen human faces that appear in The Corpse Bride. The pacing of “Vincent” is really good, driven by a poem read by Vincent Price, and the story of a child who wants to be Price works really well. “Frankenweenie” is a longer live-action film that utilizes a lot of familiar faces ranging from Daniel Stern to Barret Oliver (who played Bastian in The Neverending Story).
The Special Edition DVD for Nightmare Before Christmas does exactly what a DVD should do: provides a fantastic version of the movie along with some interesting bonus materials. Since my VHS copy started to show wear years ago and, as I said, this has become something of a holiday classic for my household, I’m glad to see it receive a good treatment on DVD.