NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, THE – DVD review

Tim Burton, who always looks as if he’s wearing 3D glasses, told the Bollywood Reporter earlier this spring that he has mixed feelings about 3D. “I don’t think it should be forced on anybody,” he said. “At the same time, it’s great, some of it.”

Some of it.

While Burton said his soon-to-be-released film version of “Dark Shadows” will not be in 3D, his upcoming animated project “Frankenweenie” willbe. I suspect the break-point is animation. Burton went on record as saying he was pleased with the Blu-ray version of “The Nightmare before Christmas,” and while I haven’t seen anything in print about the retro-3D version that streets on Tuesday, August 30, Burton’s special introduction indicates that he’s happy with this remastered and restored 3D version.

I personally find it more demanding to watch a movie in 3D with those glasses on for a long period of time, and I’m pretty sure you blink less, which results in even more eyestrain. But 3D and stop-motion animation seem like a good fit. Although there aren’t a lot of things flying off into the audience, the depth of field here is remarkable. “The Nightmare before Christmas” really is a different movie in 3D.

As it turns out, we have holiday commercialism to thank for this feature. Burton has said that he got the inspiration for the original poem upon which this film was based when he witnessed a store taking down a Halloween display and replacing it with Christmas merchandise. That jarring juxtaposition was all it took to give Burton the idea for a tale of two phantasmagorical cities: Halloween Town and Christmas Town.

One Halloween, Skellington (Chris Sarandon) starts to feel the way any number of work-a-day people do. A job that was once interesting, challenging, and satisfying to him suddenly seems mundane and repetitive. The accolades of his fellow creepy undead Halloween Town residents ring hollow. So when a restless Jack wanders into an enchanted forest where trees are the gateways to holidays, and, like Alice, he ends up falling into the wonderland of Christmas, he sees Christmas through fresh eyes. To him (a dead guy) it seems full of life: color, warmth, giving, and a holiday aura that frankly seems a bigger deal than Halloween. So the ambitious Skellington returns to Halloween Town and tries to sell the local denizens on the idea of doing Christmas this year instead of Halloween. Naturally, that means trouble for “Sandy Claws” (Edward Ivory) and all of the hapless little children and parents whose Christmas suddenly takes on a ghoulish dimension. It doesn’t help that Jack’s plan to play Santa hits a speed bump when a boogey man named Oogie (Ken Page) has his own ideas about what to do with Sandy Claws.

“The Nightmare Before Christmas” is an inventive, tune-filled production that zips along at a nice clip and integrates a fun side plot involving a wheelchair-bound maniac named Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey). Dr. F. has created a girl for himself named Sally (Catherine O’Hara) who’d rather be with Jack–so much so that she keeps trying to poison her creator/abuser. It makes for great comic relief and poignancy, all rolled into one. Ultimately, Jack gets the second life that he wants, but not the one that he expected.

But Skellington has nothing over musical director Danny Elfman when it comes to second lives or resurrections. Elfman, who used to be the lead singer for Oingo Boingo, has found an even bigger career as a film and TV composer, crafting theme songs for “The Simpsons,” “Desperate Housewives” and a ton of films, including this score. He even sings the part of Jack Skellington. There are some memorable songs and some forgettable ones, but overall the music does what it’s supposed to: it supports the visuals in grand style, whether it’s a tender moment, a celebratory one, or a frightening scene. But a word on that. Parents wondering whether this one should be a part of the family’s Halloween or Christmas movie traditions should know that the frightening aspects of the creatures are blunted nicely by humor and Elfman’s music. Jack himself isn’t the fright that he’s supposed to be . . . just a misunderstood hero.

There’s one moment of true peril (which feels like a true “Perils of Pauline” moment) and just one scene where Sally does the Warner Brothers cartoon thing and tries to lure Oogie to her by sticking out a shapely leg. Turns out that it’s ONLY her leg, though, and perhaps the thing that will make wee ones grimace is the character of Sally, who’s forever needing to have bodily parts stitched on her again. So parents of small children, be warned. Personally, I think it’s such a brand new world that the sights and sounds will so thoroughly delight that there’s not enough room for anxiety or fright. “The Nightmare Before Christmas” is just a fun romp through the holidays, and it looks great in 3D.

Video:
The video aspect ratio shifts between 1.85:1 and 1.66:1, but it all looks gorgeous. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer is flawless, and the film is nothing short of breathtaking for most of the sequences. Make that eyestrainingly breathtaking. Just when you think that you’ve seen a spectacular picture, Jack goes from Halloween Town to Christmas Town and it’s like Dorothy transitioning to Oz. The Christmas colors are candy-cane bright, while the Halloween color palette is grey but full of fantastic detail.

As for the 3D, most of this picture is contained within the glass screen and the depth of field behind it, and most of the time you marvel at what you see. There are a few moments when the animation moves so quickly that the eyes can’t keep up with 3D and the result is disconcerting, as when the mayor quickly ascends a staircase to knock on Jack’s door. Likewise, one of the few times that 3D moves beyond the limitations of the TV and into your viewing area come when Jack outstretches his arms, or when the Christmas sequences throw snowflakes at the audience. When Jack holds his town meeting there are also some pop-outs, but the most extreme example of 3-dimensionality comes when Sally lowers her bucket from the tower and we watch from below as it enters into our space. The scenes with Oogie are also quite memorable, as are shots of searchlights in the foreground with Jack on his sleigh in the background. All in all, it’s an impressive 3D release.

Audio:
The audio is incredibly dynamic, with rear speakers constantly involved and the center speaker throwing sound so that it covers the entire viewing area. Disney’s featured audio is an English Dolby TrueHD 7.1, but it also sounds kick-ass on a 5.1 system. It’s totally immersive. Additional audio options are in French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The subwoofer and the rear effects speakers are almost constantly engaged. It’s a rich, full-toned soundtrack.

Extras:
In addition to the 3D Blu-ray, this combo pack includes a Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy. And along with the Burton introduction there are a lot of goodies, mostly carry-overs from the Blu-ray release.

My favorites were two short films: the uncut version of “Frankenweenie” by Tim Burton, with a new introduction by Burton, and “Vincent,” which brings another of Burton’s poems to film and is narrated by none other than the late, great Vincent Price.

“Frankenweenie” is a wonderful attempt to recreate the Fifties and all of the influences that have had an effect on Burton as a filmmaker. Call it “Frankenstein” meets “Leave It to Beaver,” and it’s highly entertaining. Some of the shots are wonderful, too, as when Burton undercuts the Gothic mood he constructs by tossing in subtle humor. Example? When young Victor’s dog is struck by a car and the funeral is over and the brooding music continues, with young Frankenstein staring out the window into the rainy sky, the camera pulls back and we see it’s a sunny day and his mother is actually sprinkling the window as she waters her flowerbeds. Great stuff here!

“Vincent” is also a lot of fun. This six-minute film by Burton and Rick Heinrichs concerns a boy named Vincent Malloy who wants to be Vincent Price. Narrated completely in rhyme, it’s a clever and funny children’s story that’s made more clever and substantial by the fact that Burton got Price himself to do the voiceover narration. It’s a somewhat funny but somewhat sad little film that leaves you with a number of complex feelings. Then there’s the original poem that inspired “The Nightmare Before Christmas” that’s narrated by Christopher Lee, so Burton has got all the horror bases covered.

Another carry-over from the previous Blu-ray release is the audio commentary from Burton, Selick, and Elfman. They weren’t in the same room when they offered their remarks, which is too bad; rather, their comments are cobbled together, and there are a number of dead spaces throughout. What each man has to say is quite good, though, and you get the feeling that they’re all pleased with how well the film holds up 15 years after it was made. Selick’s remarks are perhaps the most revealing, because you get a sense of how Burton influenced the film despite the fact that he didn’t direct. As Selick puts it, Burton “had certain rules, like there’s no magic in Halloween Town.” Burton talks about getting “kicked out” of Disney animation, and Elfman gives some real insight not only into the process of musical composition but also into his own musical growth.

Also included is “What’s This? Jack’s Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour,” a roughly seven-minute ride through Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion that had been redesigned to spotlight “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” People who have taken that ride will enjoy this one.

The longest feature is a just under 30-minute behind-the-scenes “The Making of ‘Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas,’ which delves into the usual areas. Rounding out the bonus features are three deleted storyboards (with commentary), four deleted scenes (of around five minutes, again with commentary), original trailers and posters, a top/bottom split-screen storyboard-to-film comparison, and a well designed artwork and animation gallery that’s divided into three “worlds”: Halloween Town, Christmas Town, and The Real World. Predictably, Halloween Town has the most to offer, including animation tests with commentary by Selick, in addition to the character designs and concept are that also appear in the other sections. In other words, everything from previous releases is here, but there’s nothing new apart from Burton’s intro.

Bottom Line:
Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare before Christmas” really is a different movie in 3D. It’s impressive . . . and about as enjoyable as anything can be with those glasses on.

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