Nightmare Before Christmas – Film & DVD Review

Tim Burton’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS gets another go-round in theatres beginning this week. Last year, the film was digitally enhanced with 3D for its annual Halloween reappearance. Disney puts the film into its El Capitan Theater in Hollywood every year; for 2006, the 3D presentation warranted  other theatres around the country – a tactic being repeated this year. If you have yet to see the 3D version, you should not miss this second opportunity. The results are not spectacularly eye-popping. Because NIGHTMARE was not designed as a 3D movie, there are few of the obvious sight gags we associate with the process: a couple of ghosts seem to float out of the screen early on, but there are no objects hurtling straight into our eyes. Instead, you perceive a wonderful depth and dimensionality to the stop-motion characters, as if looking into a window on their world. The digital enhancement seems to have sharpened the image, making everything seem real enough to touch. The beauty of the imagery – which contrasts the moody Halloween Town with the brightly colored land of Christmas – is more breath-taking than ever before, even if the characters are not leaping off the screen into our laps. 
Tim Burton`s skewered sensibility finds excellent expression through the masterful stop-motion of director Henry Selick. The songs and score by Danny Elfman are wonderful; the characters are engaging; the visuals are enthralling. Amidst all the weirdness of Halloween Town, the film still strikes a wonderful sentimental chord, emerging as a wonderful Christmas movie even more than a wonderful Halloween movie. Even the muted romance between Jack Skellington and Sally is poignant, and Jack`s reawakening to the joys of being the King of Halloween is invigorating.

A technical marvel of special effects, the film is also magical and beguiling in a way that few films ever are. Credit is due to all the wonderful talent assembled by Burton: especially stop-motion director Selick, composer Elfman, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson. Their combined efforts make this one of the greatest fantasies every committed to celluloid. Despite availability on VHS, laserdisc, and DVD, this is a film well worth seeing on the big screen again. In fact, why not turn it into a Rocky Horror-type experience and start singing the lyrics out loud along with the rest of the audience?
One of the great things about this movie is that it’s not afraid to be creepy, yet at the same time it has a warm and lovable feeling about it, although sometimes that seems to be more apparent to younger viewers. Let’s face it: any film that has parents saying it’s too scary for their children, while the children themselves love it, has something going for it.
Another interesting point is that, in a curious way, the film is a companion piece to JURASSIC PARK (which also came out in 1993), in that both are about the limits of intellect: JURASSIC’s John Hammond mistakenly thinks he and his staff can plan for every exigency and control the consequences, whereas Jack Skellington thinks he can know Christmas without really understanding it. In trying to analyze this alien (to him) holiday, Jack misses its spirit (or gestalt, if you prefer a less metaphysical term) and, unable to find it, mistakenly concludes that it doesn’t exist. Jack’s attempt to reinvent the yuletide season is somewhat less disastrous than Hammond’s attempt to recreate the Jurassic Period, but he nonetheless learns his lesson, and by the end, has found a renewed vigor for returning to what he knows best: being the Pumpkin King of Halloween.
All this may be a bit too intellectual for a film that truly is just a joy to watch. So just sit back and enjoy.


The The Nightmare Before Christmas “Special Edition” DVD is filled with the same extras and supplemental material that should mad fans drool when they appeared on laserdisc; the DVD basically replicates everything from the magnificent laserdisc box set, except the price: the laserdisc ran for about $100; you can own the DVD for closer to $20.
In either format, this presentation really is the last word on the film. Of course, DVD picture quality is, technically, superior, and you don’t have to get up and change discs (there were three to contain the film and the supplemental material). On the other hand, the laser presentation was more lavish in terms of packaging: the set came in an impressively sized box, with a rich velour interior, which also contained the coffee table picture book The Film, The Art, The Vision: Tim Burrton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, written by Frank Thompson. The book, with an introduction by Tim Burton and the complete lyrics by Danny Elfman, was quite a prize in and of itself, filled with behind-the-scenes photographs and information that would fascinate any true fan of this classic film masterpiece. Needless to say, that tiny CD case has no room for this lovely item.

Other than that, the two packages are almost identical in terms of content: a “making of” documentary, animation tests, deleted story boarded sequences not filmed, deleted scenes, an alternate ending with a surprise revelation about the identify of Oogie Boogie, a still frame archive, early pencil tests, audio commentary by director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik, and three great short subjects: Tim Burrton’s “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie” and Henry Selick’s “Slow Bob in the Lower Dimension.”
As a film, The Nightmare Before Christmas is probably the greatest achievement of Tim Burrton’s career, but that credit must be shared with his many collaborators, including director Henry Selick, composer-lyricist Danny Elfman, and screenwriter Caroline Thompson. The making-of documentary helps gives some insight into the various contributions of these people, while tracing the origin of the project back to Burrton’s days at Disney (when he hoped the project would be a half-hour holiday TV special, along the lines of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer). You’ll also get a glimpse of the “frame-grabber” that helped elevate the quality of the stop-motion animation to new levels. Basically, the device allows the animators to reference the previous five frames of animation, in order to make sure that the puppet’s next photographed position will blend together for a smooth illusion of movement when projected.
The audio commentary by Selick and Kozachick is dense and informative; in fact, the only problem is that, with literally every shot being an elaborate special effect, there is not time for them to dwell on specifics—each images ranks only a few brief comments, and then it’s on to the next. Still, this is hardly much of a problem, as the film is then followed by a making-of documentary and loads of behind-the-scenes footage that fills in the details that have been only briefly discussed in the commentary. Curiously, throughout most of the film, it sounds as though Selick and Kozachick were recorded separately and then edited together, with their voices carefully alternating back and forth; only near the end do they finally overlap and actually address a comment or two to each other, revealing that, yes indeed, they were recorded together. Presumably, they realized they didn’t have time for chit and chat, and most likely they stopped and started the recording several times in order to make their comments as to-the-point as possible. One only wonders whether Kozachick’s verbal references to the “laserdisc” will survive on DVD. (At one point, he suggests spending a Saturday afternoon counting the number of shots in the movie, which he reckons to be near 800.)
The storyboards show some interesting material, including an abandoned last-reel revelation that Oogie Boogie was supposed to be Dr. Finklestein in disguise. This twist was wisely abandoned, as it adds nothing to the plot; it’s just one of those movie moments that’s there because—well, audience expect twists endings, right? Deleted footage contains some early test scenes, without the final dialogue as heard in the finished movie; in fact, it sounds closer to Burrton’s original poem, which formed the basis of the story (and was later published as an illustrated book).
The three short subjects throw some light onto the creative input of Burton and Selick. Burrton’s “Vincent,” in particular, reveals a visual style that is strikingly similar to Nightmare (there is even a briefly glimpsed cat that looks the same in both films), and the black-and-white Universal horror pastiche of “Frankenweenie” also foreshadows some of the monochromatic imagery of Halloween Town. Selick’s “Slow Bob,” on the other hand, has a more brightly colorful palette, suggesting both Nightmare’s Christmas Town setting and also Selick’s later feature film, James and the Giant Peach.
Of the shorts, Slow Bob and “Frankenweenie” are both charming efforts, and you’ll be happy to own them as part of this disc. But the real stand-out is “Vincent,” a wonderfully ghoulish little gem that resonates like a film version of Burrton’s twisted tales as seen in his book The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy, and Other Stories. Structured like a music video, the film is set to a series of verses that tell the tale of Vincent, a young boy who wants to emulate his hero, Vincent Price (who reads the narration on the soundtrack). The images segue and shift to keep pace with the verses, switching back and forth between Vincent’s real life and his imaginary one (think of Calvin and Hobbes, if conceived by Gahan Wilson, Charles Addams, and Gary Larson). My personal favorite is “Vincent performs experiments on his dog Abercrombie/In the hopes of creating a horrible zombie.” A mini-masterpiece, it’s almost worth buying this disc just for this short subject.
In short, whether on laserdisc or DVD, this package is a must-have for fans, presenting an excellent film with a multitude of extra features and supplemental material. Somehow, the large-sized box set seemed a more appropriate package for such a wonderful collectors edition, but that little DVD fits much more easily onto your shelves.

Jack Skellington tries his boney hand at filling in for Santa.

TIM BURTON’S THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993; 3D versio 2006). Directed by Henry Selick. Story by Tim Burton, adaptation by Michael McDowell, screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Voices: Danny Elfman, Christ Sarandon, Catherine O’Hara, William Hickey, Glenn Shadix, Paul Reubens, Ken page, Edward Ivory.

Harryhausen pics at Tokyo Film Fest

It Came from Beneath the SeaThis year’s installment of the Tokyo International Film Festival runs from October 20 through 28. Along with many new films from around the world, the Special Screenings section will include three stop-motion monsters films from the legendary Ray Harryhausen: 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA, and EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS.
Other highlights include CROWS, the new film from cult director Takashi Miike (ONE MISSED CALL) and the latest anime opus from Mamoru Oshii (GHOST IN THE SHELL), titled EAT AND RUN – 6 BEAUTIFUL GRIFTERS.
Read more here.

Captain Nemo Double Bill

On Sunday, the American Cinematheque concludes its 7th Annual Festival of Fantasy, Horror & Science-Fiction Films with a double bill of titles inspired by Jules Vern: 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954) and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1961), starting at 7:30pm in the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It’s been an age since I’ve seen the latter film (which is one of the best to feature stop-motion monster by Ray Harryhausen), but 20,000 LEAGUES has shown up on the big screen here in Hollywood several times in recent years, usually when Walt Disney Pictures is ginning up a little promotional buzz for yet another release on a new home video format (first VHS, then laserdisc, most recently DVD). The nice thing about this is that Disney owns one of the best movie palaces on Hollywood Blvd, El Capitan, which dates back to the Golden Era of film-going; it’s hard to think of a more magical place to enjoy a classic film. I don’t think the Egyptian Theatre can quite match the experience, but that shouldn’t’t stop Los Angeles-area genre fans from taking advantage of this rare opportunity. Continue reading “Captain Nemo Double Bill”

James and the Giant Peach: Film Review

james_and_the_giant_peachJAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH may be fashioned from a variety of film-making techniques, but there is one intangible element that holds the film together: pure imagination. Springing to life first in the fertile mind of author Roald Dahl and then planted like a seed in the equally fertile mind of stop-mo¬tion director Henry Selick, JAMES is a unique film. Like all great fantasies from THE WIZARD OF OZ to TOY STORY, it has the ability to spark imagination in the mind of its audience.

Director Henry Selick, having already proved himself proficient in the arduous realm of stop-motion with 1993’s THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, now adds this impressive notch to his artistic belt. The film opens in live-action, telling the tale of young James (an excellent performance by newcomer Paul Terry), who is forced to live with his aunts, Spiker and Sponge (over the top villainy from Miriam Margoyles and Joanna Lumley) after his parents’ death. Selick wisely chose to give these sequences the surrealistic look of stop-motion, which not only sets up the nether¬world quality of the film but also makes the transition into the world of stop-motion less jolting.

When James enters the giant peach and encounters the humanized insects, the story pulls out of the slight stall laid upon it by the down¬beat opening sequences. From the beginning, the animation is nothing short of a knockout. The hand craft¬ed images are blended seamlessly with computer graphics to create such startling sequences as a battle with skeletons aboard an underwater pirate ship (a possible nod to Harryhausen’s JASON AND THE ARG¬ONAUTS), and another sequence in which the peach, tethered to a flock of sea gulls while floating at sea, comes under attack by a mechanical shark (this may be one of the best action sequences you’ll see at the movies all year). Selick also uses JAMES as an excuse to experiment wonderfully with other animation forms, such as a hallucinogenic dream sequence, accomplished using cut outs a la Monty Python.

With such scenes, JAMES could have fallen into the same “style over substance” trap that turned many off to NIGHTMARE. But unlike the residents of that film’s “Halloween¬town,” who at times seemed like nothing more than set dressing, the insects in GIANT PEACH are fully-developed oddball personalities, similar in many ways to TOY STORY’s toys. Providing even more dimension is a great voice cast: British character actor Simon Callow gives just the perfect “veddy British” tone to Grasshopper; Susan Sarandon plays the sultry Miss Spider as Greta Garbo (she even says, “I prefer to be alone”); and Richard Dreyfuss pulls off a scene stealing performance as the Centipede, with his “Brooklynese” and off-the-cuff one liners.

The insects also add a great deal of depth to the story, warming up to James and helping him to overcome his fears (which are represented by the image of a Rhino-shaped storm cloud). The insects also perform the film’s most poignant song “We’re Family,” one of five new composi¬tions by Randy Newman, each fitting nicely into the plot, many of them infectious, including the gospel-like “Good News,” which closes the film.

JAMES falls just short of being a perfect film, but its failings are small-such as in its conclusion, which combines live-action and animation in a way that seems clumsily executed and strangely out of joint with the rest of the film. Nevertheless, JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH is a satisfying experience that’s perfect for anyone who needs a quick fix of pure imagination.

Click here to read a review of the 2010 Blu-ray disc of JAMES THE THE GIANT PEACH.

JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH. A Buena Vista release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation. Producers: Denise DiNovi, Tim Burton. Executive producer: Jake Eberts. Co-producers: Brian Rosen, Henry Selick. Director: Henry Selick. Camera: Pete Kozachik, Biro Narita, A.S.C. Editor: Stan Webb. Music & songs: Randy Newman. Production design: Harley Jessup. Conceptual design: Lane Smith. Animation supervisor: Paul Berry. Art direction: Bill Boes, Kendal Cronkhite. Costume design: Julie Slinger. Sound design: (Dolby), Gary Rydstrom. Visual effects supervisor: Kozachik. Screeaplay by Karey Kirkpatrick and Jonathan Roberts & Steve Blood, from the book by Roald Dahl. 4/96, SO mins. Rated PG. Cast:  Paul Terry, Susan Sarandon, Richard Dreyfuss, Simon Callow, Jane Leeves, Miriam Margolyes,  Joanna Lumley,  Pete Postlethwaite, David Thewlis.

This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.

James and the Giant Peach – Capsule Review

Don’t be surprised if, much like the titular fruit, you feel you’ve been cast adrift in this live-action/stop-motion animated adaptation of the Roald Dahl children’s classic. The story of a boy’s fanciful trip to New York City, accom¬panied by the insect inhabitants of a massive peach, seems to have been a victim of an historic round of studio second-guessing, marked by a formless story (What lesson does James acquire from his flight across the ocean – well, he does at least learn one way to avoid the inconvenience of a trip through customs), flat characterizations (only Susan Sarandon’s coolly seductive spider hits any depth past the obvious and the treacly), and an overabundance of truly hideous and completely pointless songs (hey, I admire Randy Newman as much as anybody, but while a song like “Eating the Peach” – in which the insects exult over all the effluvia and offal they have ingested in their lives ¬ must have sounded great when delivered in the composer’s irony-laced monotone, it’s practically unbearable in its final, jolly incarnation).
As with THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, director Henry Selick’s animation is wonderfully expressive and impressively surreal – the film features many stylistic nods to Selick’s far more fascinating short film, SLOW BOB IN THE LOWER DIMENSIONS. Looks can go only so far, however, and without the benefit of Tim Burton’s sardonic instincts (not to mention Danny Elfman’s minor-key proficiency), JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH sinks in the mire of its own syrup.

(Walt Disney, 4/96, 80 mins. ) Director: Henry Selick. With: Paul Terry, Susan Sanodon, Richard Dreyruss, Joanna Lumley.

This review originally appeared in the August 1996 issues of Cinefantasitque, Volume 28, Number 1.