Review: The Nightmare Before Christmas
In retrospect, it’s kind of amazing that The Nightmare Before Christmas works at all. The film, after all, wasn’t really based on a story so much as it was cobbled together from some poetry and sketches and ideas from Tim Burton, who intended to turn it into a half-hour TV special à la Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Or maybe a children’s book. Or maybe something else altogether. There’s also the fact that the screenplay by Caroline Thompson ended up serving almost more as a skeleton for the film than an actual script, given that much of the final product was developed visually by director Henry Selick and was constantly in flux.
Honestly, if anyone deserves the utmost praise for the success of The Nightmare Before Christmas, it would be Danny Elfman, who worked with Burton to flesh out something resembling the major story beats, then wrote the soundtrack that, in the end, actually serves as the story rather than merely as accompaniment. So much so that Chris Sarandon, who was cast in the role of the speaking voice of Jack Skellington—the film’s protagonist—has very little to do. Elfman ends up being the primary voice of Jack, the spirit of Jack, and the driving force for the film, while Selick filters Burton’s aesthetic through his own similar style and every other aspect of the production just gets dragged along for the ride.
NIGHTMARE AT A GLANCE
Given its genesis, Nightmare ought to be a mess, but it remains one of the most charming and heartfelt of all holiday films.
Even though it’s only in HD, the transfer looks flawless on Disney+. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are rich, highlights don’t clip, midtones are subtle, and the level of detail is incredible.
Truthfully, it ought to be a mess. And yet, Nightmare remains to this day one of the most charming and heartfelt holiday films I’ve ever seen. And, yes, it would be more accurate to call Nightmare a “holiday” film than a Christmas film per se because although it appropriates all the trappings of our modern commercialized, paganized melting-pot celebration of the nativity, the story makes it abundantly clear that the trappings of Christmas are hardly the point.
Instead, Nightmare cuts to the heart of why this time of year has been the center of celebration for millennia, from Saturnalia to Yule to Hanukkah to Ayyappan to Calan Gaeaf to Yaldā Night to Christmas and so many other holy and secular holidays that I’m forgetting at the moment. It’s a recognition of the fact that this holiday season represents the return of the light after a period of encroaching darkness beginning around the harvest/Halloween/Samhain/Día de los Muertos. It goes straight to the cyclical and seasonal reasons for these festivals that far too many of us have forgotten, living as we do indoors and disconnected from the earth.
There’s also a thematic aspect of Nightmare that resonates outside of its connection to the holiday season, and it’s a theme few storytellers have explored so effectively. (Really, only Tolkien comes to mind, most notably with the story of Míriel from the Quenta Silmarillion and Morgoth’s Ring.) It’s the simple lesson that when we attempt to be who we are not, to defy our true nature, nothing good can possibly come of it. In attempting to assume the role of “Sandy Claws” merely as a means of
rejecting or pacifying his own dissatisfaction with the doom and gloom of Halloween, without truly understanding why or how people celebrate Christmas, Jack makes a mess of pretty much everything. And yes, the resolution of this story thread is all wrapped up a little too tidily, but what more do you expect from a 76-minute cartoon?
Honestly, though, any fan of the film probably already realizes all of the above. So why am I going on about it all? Frankly, because the original premise of this review fell out from under me. I had every intention of writing a scathing (and perhaps pleading) criticism about the fact that The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves a 4K HDR remaster more than just about any of the Disney animated films that have already received such.
But when I sat down to watch the film again—mostly to take notes on all the scenes I thought would be improved by a modern home video transfer—I realized the current HD master (which has been with us since 2008) is pretty much flawless. Fans revolted when Disney dropped a 25th-anniversary re-release on the marketplace in 2018 with nothing more than a new singalong mode and a bit of extra bandwidth for the film itself. And I was right there, pitchfork raised alongside theirs.
But truth be told, even the HD version of the film on Disney+ looks flawless. The limited color palette is presented perfectly. Blacks are richer than liquid gold and there’s nary a hint of crush to be found. Highlights don’t clip, midtones don’t seem in any way lacking in subtlety, and the level of detail is incredible. Simply put, all of the shortcomings we now associate with HD video are pretty much nowhere to be seen in this film. I think I’ve seen Nightmare on the big screen at least 10 times, and frankly even the Disney+ stream looks better than any of those commercial exhibitions, revealing fine textures and little visual Easter eggs I didn’t even notice in IMAX from the fourth row.
Granted, the Disney+ version doesn’t include all of the supplemental material that has appeared on various home video releases through the years. It does include several deleted scenes and storyboards, along with a few other goodies. But it lacks a couple of essential gems, namely the audio commentary by Selick, Burton, and Elfman, as well as Christopher Lee’s reading of Burton’s original “Nightmare Before Christmas” poem. You can find those on Kaleidescape, though, and they’re all worth a watch/listen.
More than anything, though, I just wanted to point out that if you’ve been waiting on a UHD release of The Nightmare Before Christmas, you should probably stop. If it were going to happen anytime soon, it would have been two years ago. Given Disney’s penchant for tying home video releases to anniversaries, our next shot at a remaster probably comes in 2023. And that’s simply too long to wait before diving into this charming little holiday gem again.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.