Monday, 29 October 2012

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1993, US, Directed by Henry Selick
Colour, Running Time: 76 minutes
Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Disney; Video: 1080p 24fps 1.66:1 (2D)/1.78:1 (3D), Audio: Dolby TrueHD

Jack Skellington is an influential force in Halloween Town: the inhabitants look up to him to orchestrate the arrangements of each Halloween night, the primary purpose being to annually frighten the residents of the human world above and then spend the rest of the year preparing the following festival. But from Jack’s point of view the whole routine is becoming meaningless. As with most reasonably intelligent individuals he’s beginning to question the point of it all and yearns for something to break the mould. One night wandering through an unexplored part of the woods he stumbles across a doorway to Christmas Town. Exploring the place his enthusiasm is re-ignited as he decides to take over the Christmas celebrations of the human world and add his own personal spin on things. Authorising the kidnapping of ‘Sandy Claws’ to keep the big man out of the way, Jack utilises the help of Halloween Town’s infinitely macabre residents to prepare some new ways of celebrating. But being a little misguided Jack manages to make a bit of a mess of things when he angers humanity with his strange gifts (severed heads, snakes, etc.), putting his own life in peril in the process.

Derived from a story and accompanying sketches produced by Burton several years previous, Disney (the film was eventually released under their more ‘adult’ subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures) bravely permitted the project to be realised using stop motion animation, an incredibly time consuming and arduous technique that involves meticulously moving hand crafted models frame by frame, each shot usually accommodating either 1/12th or 1/24th of a second depending on the level of sophistication required. It’s worth remembering that CGI was in its relative infancy at the time and the first fully computer animated feature (Toy Story) was still a couple of years away so at this point traditional 2D (generally drawn) was the method of choice for the majority of full length animated films. To take on a feature project using the laborious stop motion process was close to madness but thankfully it’s something that appears to have paid off over the years, both critically and commercially - the movie’s subsequent success easily returned profits on the original investment of (approximately) eighteen million dollars.
The magnitude of this technical achievement, however, would have been nothing were it not for the abundance of incredibly imaginative ideas on display: every single shot oozes dark beauty both in the designs and character movements. Each hand-created model, from ornaments and buildings to trees and entire towns, is almost a work of art in its own right, the pinnacle being the characters themselves: accurately reflecting Burton’s original sketches these statuettes are brought to life so exquisitely they could fool you into thinking they’re autonomous entities in their own right. Jack Skellington himself makes a charismatic lead, someone with both entertaining personality and the deeper flaws that almost bring about his downfall as he desperately tries to understand and emulate a cultural tradition that he’s completely unfamiliar with. Though the results of his actions bring about despair upon humankind he’s not specifically an evil person, more so misguided and misunderstood (and from a different cultural background), hence there is a complexity there not as common as it should be in feature films, both live-action and animated. His stubborn attempts to bring meaning to his own life through recreating the Christmas spirit are counter-balanced by Sally, someone who can see clearly what’s going wrong but can’t quite get her point across. Of course she has her own problems in the form of scientist and captor, the gorgeously realised Dr Finkelstein. The efforts of the artists don’t stop at the primary characters though - even bit parts (especially the fantastic human children) are great to watch, ensuring there are things going on that you’ll be noticing afresh for viewings to come.

Danny Elfman must have loved this project, composing a near constant score as well as writing the lyrics throughout and providing the singing voice for Jack. Not being a fan of musicals I admittedly didn’t warm to the soundtrack until after perhaps two or three viewings; nowadays it’s impossible to imagine this film sounding any other way. Of course Burton himself didn’t actually direct this film - his name over the title reflects the fact that it’s based on his story, visuals and concepts. While he stood in as producer (along with, at that point, regular collaborator Denise Di Novi) Henry Selick was offered directorial duties, something that requires a certain degree of awareness outside of the norm due to the extremely slow nature of filming. It may be fair to say that Selick’s contribution was initially less acknowledged than it should have been, what with Burton’s creative shadow somewhat obscuring recognition of the lesser known man’s presence. What’s almost as bad is the fact that he then went on to direct James and the Giant Peach, a Roald Dahl story that Burton obviously had not created, and the producers added Dahl’s name above the title! The talented guy just doesn’t seem to be destined for fame somehow, though more recently the exquisite Coraline should have rectified that. Aside from the fact that Nightmare Before Christmas has very little competition as far as stop motion feature films are concerned, it’s nevertheless an amazing film both artistically and technically, one that revels in visual beauty from the opening seconds onwards and a moment of real creative integrity for Hollywood, something that‘s way too uncommon in a world where cinema has been hijacked by business people.

Seeing this film for years on DVD brought about a familiarity that really gave birth to unprecedented appreciation when I watched the Blu-ray Disc - the transfer (finally framed at its correct ratio) brings the film to life in a manner I simply didn’t expect. Model work is truly granted justice as every crevice now seems to be visible, while the colour is so vivid a direct comparison to the previously released DVDs makes them look like you've going back to VHS. Similarly there were sounds in the Dolby TrueHD track that I’m sure I’d never heard before, such is the clarity of the audio. The set can be picked up as standard Blu-ray, or a 2 Blu set that contains the 3D conversion on a separate disc (retaining all of the original content and 2D version on the first disc).  The 3D version is quite a joy to watch, though the results are not consistently superb - some shots have a little depth, whilst many look quite amazing with the delectable model work taking on further life of its own.  The inherent jerkiness of some of the stop motion animation doesn't lend itself well to the faster moving shots when rendered in three dimensions, but the overall result was pleasing, particularly as this conversion was undertaken a few years ago.  The ratio is also slightly cropped at 1.78:1 (no doubt the desire to use the entire frame of a widescreen set is desirable with 3D content). The standard disc is rammed with extras with Burton’s old films Vincent and Frankenweenie being retained (though not looking as good as the feature obviously). The latter has now also being turned into a stop motion feature and recent clips suggest this should be something to check out without fail. Nightmare Before Christmas is a sumptuously characterised, true gem of a film and justifiably blessed with a BD that should be owned by all film-lovers.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Bring forth your thoughts...