When Tim Burton was shopping around his idea for THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, animation was not considered a viable product for the big screen, at least not outside kiddie flicks. Even with the success of his dark and moody Batman franchise, even with the quirky but wildly romantic EDWARD SCISSORHANDS under his belt, and BEETLEJUICE, a film that employed puckish animated effects that knew no restraint, it was a hard sell. Burton, though, was undeterred, even when it looked like the longest of shots. Fortunately for us, his determination and his cockeyed vision of a world in which animation was sophisticated enough for adults while still capturing the essence whimsy attracted a loyal band of creative types who were willing to work around Burton’s schedule, one that was as eccentric as his working style. First of all, it prevented him from actually directing his baby, and that is a story in and of itself.
The film itself has been remastered and has never looked better. Jack Skellington’s discovery of another holiday beyond the borders of Halloween Town, and his single-minded attempts to cross-pollinate All Hallows Eve with Christmas, is inspiring, wacky, and infused with Burton’s unique romanticism suffused with, but not subsumed by, a gothic sensibility. There is so much going on that it truly doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it before, there will always be something new to savor.
The commentary track, with Burton, director Henry Selick and music designer Danny Elfman is all new, and includes, during the running reactions to different scenes, the backstory of what Burton went through to get it made. There are the usual gems of trivia, such as the Jack’s spindly limbs making life just a tad more difficult than even the seasoned animators had anticipated. Burton’s dynamic collaboration with Elfman comes in for its own extended consideration, and by the end, it’s impossible to determine where one’s contribution starts and the other’s ends. For those seeking psychological underpinnings, there is the discussion of just what the distinction is in Burton’s mind between a bad boy and one that is evil.
The extras include two tours of Disneyland’s Haunted House attraction re-engineered into A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS experience. Sure, it’s an ad for Disneyland, but it’s darned irresistible the way it’s presented. That would be having the imaginers discussing exactly what they did and why. There is the ever-evolving gingerbread house (real gingerbread, please note) that changes yearly with the whims of the designers. There are the technical challenges, including not being able to move some parts of the attraction because they are so perfectly aligned. Mostly, though, it’s the imaginers themselves, who are living their dream coming up with ways to amuse the public, which boils down to amusing themselves, but with the resources that Disney supplies them. When one of them talks about finally being able to peek behind a curtain that has intrigued him since he was a kid visiting the Haunted House, there is a vicarious thrill involved in being able to go, literally, behind the scenes.
Other bonuses include extensive looks at the different characters and the worlds in which they live, the most interesting of which is the screen test Burton and company did of Jack Skellington for Disney. The wire armature with Jack’s distinctive head goes through its paces demonstrating in the words of the narrator, how much of an animated character is in its movements. The obligatory deleted scenes are of the storyboarded and final animated types, and they include my only problem with the DVD. While we are told that there was a decision to have the vampire hockey players play with a pumpkin instead of Tim Burton’s head, we are not told, as Mr. Burton’s head is shown rolling around, why that was.
To top off the deluxe DVD package, there is VINCENT, the animated short about the eponymous seven-year-old who is obsessed with Vincent Price, who serves as the animator. The uncut FRANKENWEENIE, Burton’s live-action twist on the Frankenstein tale in which a boy and his dog are reunited after the former performs some sophisticated experiments in his basement boasts a new introduction by the filmmaker. And best of all, Burton’s original poem on which THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is based is included with evocative narration by Christopher Lee.
THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS is a seasonal story, but one that is also timeless, as much fun during the long holiday season that starts with Labor Day, as it would be during the 4 of July or Arbor Day. There is just no wrong time to revisit Jack and his pals.