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|Kevin Krock, editor|
As a young child, I was fascinated by stop- motion animated television shows like Davey and Goliath and Gumby. There was something magical about watching lumps of plasticine come to life and move around the screen. Sure, the animation back then had fairly significant limitations, but it was good enough to make me want to try it myself. After creating a simple modeling clay character and producing a couple of very short Super8 movies, I quickly realized just how hard and tedious animation really is. While the attempts cooled my interest in taking up animation as a career, it gave me a very strong appreciation for the efforts of stop- motion animators, and since that time, stop- motion animation has been a special interest of mine.
Over the years, stop- motion animation has dramatically improved through the incredible efforts of artists like Will Vinton, the creative force behind numerous Claymation commercials and television shows. However, even up to 1991, the technique was still somewhat limited and most stop- motion movies still looked stilted when compared to either live- action or cel- animated films. Part of the problem was the limitation of the camera; it was required to stay in a fixed position, so character staging could only take place in a small portion of a set before the camera and models had to be reset for the next shot. Then, in July of 1991, work began on a stop- motion film that would raise the bar on the medium beyond anything seen before.
Tim Burtonís The Nightmare Before Christmas was a concept that he had been kicking around for a long time, and the whole film embodies his bizarre and fabulously creative style. Initially developed as a poem, the story follows Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, as he accidentally discovers Christmas Town and falls in love with the idea of Christmas. He quickly decides that he wants to be the King of Christmas too, so he has Santa Claus captured and tries to spread his own twisted, but well-meaning, version of the holiday. Unwittingly, Jackís attempt almost ruins Christmas forever, and Jack must do his best to return things to normal.
The first thing you notice when you watch this movie is the fantastic animation and staging. The animation is fluid and communicative, and the attention to detail is amazing. Additionally, the introduction of the "mocon" (motion control) camera allowed the animators to stage the stop-motion action as if it were a live- action shot. Gone was the restriction of a fixed camera position, and now the camera could pan, tilt, truck, etc. during a scene. This alone gives the film a much more natural look, and it helps draw the viewer into the action rather than placing them on the passive perimeter of it. It is surprising what a small visual change like free camera movement can do for a film, and since Nightmare, it has become a standard tool for stop-motion animators.
Beyond the technical achievements of this film, the expressive characters, brilliant Danny Elfman songs, and surreal environments successfully transport viewers into Burtonís delightfully weird and askew world. While this is a great Halloween pumpkin-carving movie for families with school age children, you should understand that this is not necessarily a movie for preschoolers. The PG rating comes primarily from the particularly frightening activities of the citizens of Halloween Town, where most of the movie takes place. If you are not familiar with the movie, just think of everything that makes Halloween spooky and scary and bundle it into one place and you have Halloween Town. In fact, there are a couple of scenes that will probably stick with adults well after the movie is over.
This single- disc special edition is just chock full of stuff. Much of it has been transferred from the laser disc special edition, but for those of us that never had a laser disc player, this DVD has a lot of the cool stuff. A few of the items are pretty routine, like trailers, posters, and a storyboard-to-film comparison, but the rest of it is impressive. There is a great 25 minute "Making of" documentary that covers just about every aspect of the production, and it includes some fantastic behind- the- scenes footage. To complement it, the full- length audio commentary by director Henry Selick and director of photography Pete Kozachik is a strong, interesting and quite technical discussion of the film.
There are also a couple of deleted scenes, and although they are short, they have informative commentaries by Selick regarding the reasons they were dropped. The gallery of concept art, character designs, and animation tests is another treat. With over 450 images, you get an intimate peek into where the characters came from and how they developed into what you see on the screen. The animation tests show you how challenging it was for the animators to develop character movements, even as simple as walking.
Two other favorite goodies are Tim Burtonís early films Vincent and Frankenweenie. Vincent, Burtonís directorial debut, is a stop-motion animated black- and- white Gothic tribute to his idol Vincent Price. It is a creepy and odd six- minute short narrated by Price, and it clearly shows the origins of The Nightmare Before Christmas. The other film, Frankenweenie is a 30-minute live- action movie that puts a twist on the Frankenstein tale. In this version, a young boy, fascinated by "mad" science, brings his dog back to life after a car accident. While it is not quite as bizarre as Vincent, it is still a neat glimpse into Burtonís unique universe, and it nicely rounds out this very good set of bonus material.
The Video, Audio and Interface
The video transfer on this DVD is generally pretty good, but it does have a couple of relatively minor shortcomings. The first is the lack of an anamorphic transfer. While this primarily affects those viewers with widescreen televisions, it would still provide an improved image for those of us with standard televisions. One of the main reasons for the anamorphic absence is that, rather than spend the extra time to remaster the video, Disney simply used the letterbox widescreen transfer from the laser disc. It is not a bad transfer; it is just not as good as it could be. The other issue I noticed was some distinct graininess in several scenes, but it is hardly a major distraction. Fortunately, besides those two points, the colors, shadows, and visual detail do a very fine job at showing off this unique movie.
One nice aspect of this disc is the selection of top-notch audio soundtracks. With both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, there is something for everyone. The Dolby Digital track sounded very clean and enveloping on everything from my headphones and television to my Dolby Pro Logic system, and Iím sure it sounds even better on a 5.1 audio system. Additionally, I would expect the DTS track to be equally impressive, should you have the capability.
The simple yet effective user interface is quite fitting for the movie, and it sets the mood perfectly. The main and bonus material menus are animated, and they also have soft musical accompaniment taken from the filmís score. The menu selections are easy to read, and the hierarchy is simple enough for just about everyone in the family to follow.
The Final Evaluation
Overall, the only issue that I have with this disc is the lack of a new anamorphic video transfer, but other than that, this is a solid special edition that has a great selection of goodies. The animation is superb and unique, and the movie is a lot of fun, in a weird, spooky, Halloweenish way.
So, if you are looking for a family flick during October and your children can handle the creepy inhabitants of Halloween Town, this DVD is definitely worth taking a look at. Also, since it is now available at around $20, (Disney has lowered the list price) it is a very good deal for fans of the film that want to watch it repeatedly.
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