The Nightmare Before Christmas
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The Nightmare Before Christmas

DVD

Blu-ray /3D

Most people may consider genius the ability to come up with something so completely different that no one has ever thought of it before. This is another form of genius that in some ways is just as novel but much more practical. This form is to see potential in things that already exist and combine them in a way that makes the old fresh and new again. This came to mind while re-watching Tim Buton’s strange classic ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’. All of the components that went into the production of this film have been used before. There are many holiday musicals around. We have all seen horror flicks taking place on Halloween. Even the method of presentation, stop action animation has been with us for decades. The genius that is within the strange man known to one and all as Tim Burton is he can look at all these separate elements in a way that no one has ever done before. His eyes filter the ordinary in such a fashion that what is bizarre to us is every day for him. More than that his has the talent in film making to take this odd world view and make it into movie for all of us to experience. This film is one of Burton’s most well loved films. It is also one of the strangest in his illustrious career. It takes a twisted genius to come up with an animated musical about Halloween trying to take over Christmas. This is just not something most people could even imagine. This groundbreaking movie has been out on DVD a couple of times before. It was one of the first waves when the new media hit the stores in 1997 and re-released in 2003. Now, both of those releases are discontinued but there is a new hope for fans. Buena Vista has a brand new collector’s edition. Actually there are three new variations including new Blu-ray 3D and standard High Definition editions so if you haven’t added this to your collection yet now is definitely the time.

Almost all of us have sat as children in front of the family TV and enjoyed the stop action animation of the Christmas classics like ‘Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer’ or ‘Frosty the Snowman’. The animation was jerky and stiff but it was better than a regular cartoon so we watched year after year. The process used here is to construct little models of the characters and move the limbs very slightly between frames. Burton has gathered around him people who were able to take this to a whole new level. The puppets are metal on a metallic skeleton and covered by a latex form. This gives them a much more realistic look that their primitive predecessors. It is a pain staking process to move each figure in a scene 24 times for every second of film shown. Not only did each figure have to move its limbs the facial expressions had to change with each frame made. The process was so tedious that it took over three years to make a 76 minute film. Burton created a whole new world for these characters to live in. Every scene is out of a Christmas dream or a Halloween nightmare. This is a perfect mixture of the real and surreal imaginable. While Burton was constrained with his early film ‘Beetlejuice’ by the live action and real actors his imagination is unbound for this movie. This is something that you experience more than just passively watch.

Another groundbreaking aspect of this film is the music. Of course you need music for any film with the word ‘Christmas’ in the title but Old Saint Nick never had this in mind. The music and score was Danny Elfman, a long time collaborator of Burton. The two men understand each other so well that the music and visuals just merge together seamlessly. Elfman is well known for his odd musical themes that are instantly recognizable as his. His music transports you into another world. It is eerie keeping the audience off balance right from the start. The opening number ‘This is Halloween’ has become a holiday classic of sorts; something Halloween really hadn’t had before this film.

Basically the foundation of the story is each holiday has its own town dedicated to preserving the traditions of the event. In Halloween Town the most important person is Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon; singing voice Danny Elfman), the Pumpkin King. The inhabitants of the town love nothing more than to think up harmless ways to scare people and for them Halloween is every day. Jack has an admirer from afar, Sally (Catherine O'Hara) a sort of rag doll version of Frankenstein. She wants to be with Jack but this is greatly opposed by her creator Dr. Finkelstein (William Hickey) who does his best to keep the two apart. One day while doing a little exploring with his ghostly dog Zero, Jack discovers portals to the other Holiday towns. He enters Christmas town where he finds that it is always winter and the Christmas spirit lives forever. He returns to Halloween Town and tells the townsfolk about his experience providing a view of Christmas that is more than a little twisted. Jack wants more out of life than Halloween. After all Christmas is a much more popular holiday and he feels he deserves it. The people of the town still haven’t a clue about the holiday but agree to celebrate it anyway. Jack casts himself in the lead role of ‘Sandy Claws’. Naturally the gifts that the people of Halloween Town come up with are things like snakes that devour Christmas trees and scare children. Jack’s version of the sled is a coffin pulled by skeletal reindeer. It is little wonder that things soon get out of hand and Sally has to help Jack pull it all together.

It would seem that this film is a natural for re-release in the new high definition 3D techniques. After all the methodology utilized to create the movie in the first place does rely on a three dimensional model for its stop action approach. The home theater 3D techniques are still relatively new resulting in a couple of problems. The first is more of a moot point in this particular case though. I’ve noticed that many of the filmmakers are very much on the learning curve figuring out how to properly infuse that extra dimension as a means to tell the story. Burton was photographing miniature models in a modernization of a very old animation technique. Not since Ray Harryhausen has this technique been give given such a boost in technique and popularity. Burton’s film did not overly rely on objects thrusting out of the plane towards the audience. It’s annoying, hackneyed and thankfully absent in the case. That does bring us to the second concern. That is the actual work of turning out a suitable 3Dfilm for home enjoyment. The technology is not quite there yet so as much as the studios would love to refurbish older movies for 3D releases they are not going to look as good as something created for 3D and shown in a high end theater. The technical people are getting close and this film is a necessary step in the process but they are not there yet. Still watching ‘Nightmare before Christmas’ in this new edition brought a measure of novelty to a perennial favorite.

Posted 08/28/11

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