Editor’s Note: Welcome to Film Obsessive’s newest feature series, “Off the Shelf.” Each Saturday our writers share the joys of physical media, from reviews of new 4K and Blu-ray releases to reflections on the treasured media they’ve come to collect and cherish over the years.
Of the many, many iconic films in Disney’s long history, there is perhaps none that enjoys the unique popularity of Tim Burton’s stop-motion classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. Originally distributed under the Touchstone banner out of concern it might frighten or alienate the younger audience that was the studio’s bread and butter, the film went on to be a modest hit before eventually finding a cult following and—seemingly against all odds—becoming one of the most popular films in the studio’s canon. It also happens to be a personal favorite of mine, and one of the jewels of my physical media collection is a hard-to-find, two-disc collector’s edition of the film that comes in some of the most unique packaging I have come across.
Storywise, the film is the story of Jack Skellington, the king of Halloween Town who has grown bored with his life of scares and screams and is looking for something new. When he finds himself in Christmas Land, he seemingly finds what he’s looking for and decides that this year, both he and all the citizens of Halloween Town will put on Christmas instead. It’s a fairly simple story, but its unique Halloween-meets-Christmas aesthetic, songs, and memorable cast of characters—Jack, Sally, and Oogie Boogie to name a few—gave the film a cult following that eventually grew into one of the cornerstones of Disney fandom.
Visually, it remains one of the most imaginative and stunning films ever created. Rather than traditional animation, The Nightmare Before Christmas is done in stop-motion—what we’re seeing is clay sculptures carefully being manipulated and photographed one frame at a time in order to simulate motion. It’s the same style used by the famous Rankin/Bass holiday specials—one of several influences on the film—and it makes the world and the characters within it feel alive in a way that no other medium can.
Stop-motion animation had been around since all the way back in 1898, with a major resurgence coming in the 50s and 60s thanks to the aforementioned Rankin/Bass holiday specials and the work of animation legend Ray Harryhausen, but Nightmare is likely the medium’s crowning achievement on both an artistic and a technical level. The film is filled with iconic characters and worlds, and the creative team behind it pushed the medium to heights it had previously never been able to reach. Roger Ebert’s review of the film even said that the visual innovation fund in the film was comparable to the likes of Metropolis, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Star Wars.
Special Features and Quality
Before we get into the special features included with this edition, I’ll tell you about the noteworthy packaging I mentioned earlier. See, this particular collector’s edition actually came in two distinct runs, and luckily the one in my possession is from the original run. The difference? The original run’s cover is actually a pseudo shadowbox, with the art of Jack Skellington on the cover being a three-dimensional cutout. Later editions would use a flat image of that same artwork in order to fit into a more standard-sized package, and the difference between versions feels like night and day: later editions can sort of disappear into the rest of a shelf or collection, while the original print feels closer to—dare I say—a piece of art that can be put prominently on display.
As for the special features, there’s no way to describe it other than as an embarrassment of riches—there is so much good stuff to sink your teeth into. There are your somewhat standard features—deleted scenes, original theatrical trailers, and posters, but the rest of what’s included is an absolute gold mine.
We get two of Burton’s early stop-motion short films: Frankenweenie, itself later made into a full-length film, and Vincent, about a young boy who dreams of being like Vincent Price—and was narrated by the legendary actor himself. There’s also a narration of Burton’s original poem performed by Christopher Lee, accompanied by some gorgeous traditional animation inspired by the work. There’s both a stylized POV ride-through of the Haunted Mansion ride with its Nightmare Before Christmas themed overlay they use for the holiday season and a behind-the-scenes look of what goes into putting that overlay up every year.
Then, a whopping five of the deep-dive style features that are always my personal favorites, the ones that get into the nitty-gritty aspects of how a given film was conceived or created. The Nightmare Before Christmas might have Tim Burton’s name on it, but it’s really a collaborative effort between three individuals (and their respective crews): Burton, who produced the film and created the original concept; Danny Elfman, who wrote the songs that convey much of the story and provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington, and Henry Selick, who directed the film and the team that did the animation and brought the film to life. Thankfully, the behind-the-scenes features give roughly equal weight to each of their contributions and unique insights into the process of making The Nightmare Before Christmas.
First, a roughly half-hour making-of documentary, taking us from Burton’s original concept art and poem to Elfman’s compositions to the stop-motion work done by Selick and his team. It’s all interesting stuff, but the best parts come when exploring just how intense the process of doing stop-motion animation is and you’ll finish the film with a considerable amount of appreciation for the work that went into the film’s creation.
Then, a full-length commentary that accompanies the film, provided by Burton, Elfman, and Selick. There’s some overlap between what’s covered in the commentary and what’s covered in the making of documentary, but there are some unique insights into how specific sequences were created and how certain songs came to be.
Finally, there’s a storyboard-to-film comparison and a trio of featurettes exploring the design and influences of each of the film’s three worlds: how Halloween Town was inspired by German expressionism, designing the more whimsical Dr. Seussesque Christmas Town, and the deliberately “plain,” symmetrical real world briefly visited at the end.
Quality-wise, this edition—as is everything in my collection—is on DVD format and naturally will get outshone on a technical level by later Blu-Ray editions, but there’s a timeless quality to the animation that isn’t really marred by technical shortcomings. Thankfully, the Blu-Ray collector’s edition does include all of the special features, but it does come in more standard packaging and loses that “something special” about the original’s shadowbox cover.
Later collections of The Nightmare Before Christmas may certainly be more technically impressive and still have the original’s wealth of special features, but the unique shadow box style packaging found on that first run is what elevates it to the next level for me. Not only is the film itself one of my favorites of all time, but this particular edition is also the jewel of my collection and something I’ll continue to treasure for years to come.