Monday, September 08, 2008

Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas - 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD
DVD review by Sombrero Grande

"'Twas a long time ago, longer now than it seems..."

It was 1993, and the world's first feature-length stop-motion animated film, Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, was released into theaters by Touchstone Pictures. Disney executives were nervous about the odd, dark tone the film possessed and decided to brand it as a "Touchstone" release instead of under the "Walt Disney Pictures" banner.

The film opened and instantly became a cult classic. Over the years that followed, mall shops like Suncoast and Hot Topic began overflowing with Nightmare merchandise. Disney finally embraced the film in 2001 when it converted Disneyland's Haunted Mansion with a temporary holiday make-over featuring the characters from the film.

Just recently, Disney released a new 2-disc Collector's Edition DVD set for the film--now branded under the Walt Disney Pictures label unlike the previous Special Edition DVD release. The Special Edition DVD, first released in 2000, contained a bevy of bonus features, but the new 2-disc set trumps it. Is the new Collector's Edition worth upgrading to if you still own the previous DVD? Read on and find out.

But first there's the matter of talking about the film itself. While visually it is a startlingly breathtaking achievement, like Jack Skellington's version of Christmas, it does suffer from some very unfortunate flaws.

Jack Skellington is the "Pumpkin King" of Halloweentown and the one responsible for organizing the holiday of Halloween each year. As the film opens, Jack has just successfully finished another horrifying Halloween night, but he's not too happy about it. He's grown bored with Halloween and doing the same old thing year after year. During a walk to clear his head, he stumbles upon a strange door that leads to Christmastown. Jack instantly falls in love with Christmas and decides that this is going to be his new thing; he's going to be in charge of Christmas this year. But his world-view is only that of Halloween, so naturally every attempt he makes at creating Christmas comes across through the nightmarish filter of Halloween.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is a gorgeous film to watch. The stop-motion animation, while done as an homage to the classic old TV Christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, remains as fresh and remarkable today as it did in theaters in 1993. The animators did not make things easy on themselves in Nightmare, with complex characters, giant crowd shots, moving cameras and all kinds of effects that leave viewers wondering "how did they do that?!"

Stop-motion animation is such a laborious, time-consuming process, it makes me wish the same amount of time and effort had gone into crafting the material to be animated. Much of the dialogue, music and lyrics in the movie feel horribly rushed, which is really a shame. Indeed the bonus material on the 2-disc DVD set affirms that the songs were written in a matter of days. Embarrassingly juvenile lyrics often devolve into sideline non-sequitors ("...and since I am dead I can take off my head...") and unconvincingly push vital plot points ahead. It's baffling that these were written by Danny Elfman, one of the greatest (and my favorite) film score composers working today and leader of Oingo Boingo. The show-stopping "What's This?" is a gem, but the rest are either unremarkable ("The Town Meeting Song," "Poor Jack") or grating ("The Scheming Song," "Making Christmas," "Oogie Boogie's Song"). Almost every year once Halloween rolls around I'll pop Nightmare into my DVD player, and press "skip" right through the bulk of the songs as I watch the film.

But if you're reading this review you most likely already have your own firm opinion of the film (and probably aren't too happy with me at the moment) and are looking for information on the DVD bonus features, so here goes. I'll start with the features that are directly carried over from the pervious DVD release.

First off there's two of Burton's early short films made for Disney, the stop-motion animated Vincent and the live-action Frankenweenie. Frankenweenie, the story of a young Victor Frankenstein bringing his deceased dog back to life, sports an "all new intro" for this DVD wherein Burton mentions that he's beginning work on a feature-length stop-motion animated version of the story (which I assume will be released by Disney and otherwise wouldn't be mentioned on a Disney DVD). Vincent is a short stop-motion animated cartoon that stylistically shows a lot of foreshadowing of Nightmare.

There's also a storyboard-to-film comparison, still gallery of "the Worlds of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas", a handful of deleted scenes, trailers, posters, and the very early-'90s-looking behind-the-scenes documentary "the Making of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas" that round out the features directly carried over from the previous DVD release.

So what's new on this new DVD release? Well aside from some really nifty new menu animations (seriously), there's a new feature-length audio commentary supplied by Burton, Elfman and director Henry Selick (the previous DVD had only commentary by Selick). In it, the focus seems to rely mainly on Elfman as he narrates his way through each of his songs.

Tim Burton's original poem, upon which the film is based, is animated in a Flash-animation style and narrated by Christopher Lee. Listening to the original story actually cleared up some of the plot holes for me in the feature film version (like, why does Santa forgive Jack so easily after Skellington arranged his kidnapping and why does Santa deliver Christmas snow to Halloweentown?). I have to say that, from a pure storytelling point of view, I actually preferred the conciseness of the poem to the film, so it's well worth watching.

The new packaging for the 2-disc set features a cool framed 3D rendering of Jack built into the front of the box, which looks neat on a DVD shelf, assuming you have the room for it. There's also a "digital copy" of the film inside on an unmentioned third disc, though it only served to freeze my computer when I tried to use it.

By far, though, the greatest of the new features in the 2-disc Collector's Edition is "What's This? Jack's Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour." Perhaps it's just the theme park nut in me, but I really loved this new feature, an exhaustive peek into the holiday make-over of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. There's an "On Track" feature which allows DVD viewers to experience a ride on the Nightmare Before Christmas version of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion with the actual narration and optional pop-up trivia about the ride. Then there's an "Off Track" feature wherein the creators of the holiday overlay discuss in detail the changes made to the ride every year in a scene-by-scene manner. It's a surprisingly lengthy and wonderfully in-depth tour of a great attraction that many folks don't get the chance to experience for themselves. This bonus feature alone was, for me, worth the upgrade from the previous DVD release. Only the constant "back to the tour" unnecessary titles that populate the "Off Track" feature serve to make the documentary feel as long as it is.

So, is the new 2-disc Collector's Edition of Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas for you? Hopefully I've given you enough information to decide for yourself, if you already have Nightmare on DVD, if you'll want to upgrade to the new edition. If you don't have the film already in your DVD collection, this is a great purchase and, lackluster songs aside, a great movie for late-in-the-year viewing.


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