"The Nightmare Before Christmas"

Coffins and scorpions for the holidays! Plus: Two great Tim Burton animated shorts, "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie."


Stephanie Zacharek
December 23, 2000 1:00AM (UTC)

Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (Special Edition)
Directed by Henry Selick
Starring the voices of Chris Sarandon, Danny Elfman, Catherine O'Hara
Buena Vista; widescreen (1.66:1)
Extras: Director commentary; making-of featurette; gallery of concept art, character design and animation tests; deleted footage; Tim Burton's short films "Vincent" and "Frankenweenie"

When you're a kid, the scant two months between Halloween and Christmas seem interminable. Tim Burton bridges the gap with his wickedly delightful stop-motion animated feature "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which features Santa Claus being kidnapped and -- gently -- tortured by a trio of giggling little hobgoblins and their beastly boss. It just doesn't get any better than this.

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But that's just one angle of the story. "The Nightmare Before Christmas" tells the tale of how Jack Skellington, a dapper denizen of Halloween Town, becomes entranced with -- and later obsessed by -- the neighboring village of Christmas Town and its corresponding celebration. As the gorgeous patchwork girl who has a crush on him, Sally, looks on, he rallies his fellow townspeople to create a Christmas of their own. They get into the swing of things without missing a beat, gleefully wrapping trinkets in coffin-shaped boxes and packing scorpions inside nesting dolls.

Burton didn't direct "The Nightmare Before Christmas" -- that job went to Henry Selick -- but its gently twisted macabre humor and gorgeously executed visuals mark it as his creation. (Burton conceived the characters and the story when he was a young animator at Disney; some 10 years later the company gave him the opportunity to make this movie.) His Halloween Town is a dreamscape of black, white and gray crosshatching accented with orange. And his characters are indelible: Jack is a daddy-longlegs Fred Astaire in pinstripes, with an infinitely expressive skull for a face. Sally is a rag-doll ballerina, tipsy and unsure on her spindly legs -- her fumbling-doe grace is a huge part of her charm.

The special edition DVD is rich with extras, including test sequences that show how the animators perfected distinctive gaits for Jack and Sally. The making-of featurette is fairly rudimentary and may not be particularly enlightening for those who already have a fair knowledge of stop-motion animation techniques. Still, it gives a sense of the scope of the project and the massive challenges involved: For example, each moving character needed to be manipulated 24 times to come up with just a second of film. (The movie's running time is 76 minutes.)

The most valuable extras of all, though, are Burton's two early short films, "Vincent" (1982) and "Frankenweenie" (1984). The fervently poetic animated feature "Vincent," done completely in rich pen-and-ink-style black-and-white, tells the story of a young boy who wants desperately to be Vincent Price. (Price, incidentally, narrates the film.) Young Vincent concocts a dark but fanciful daydream world for himself, complete with a true love who's been buried alive; his mother, meanwhile, tries to convince him that he's just a normal boy and should go outside and get some fresh air. "Vincent" is like an Edgar Allan Poe miniature filtered through Chuck Jones -- funny, elegant, creepy and touching all at once.

"Frankenweenie" -- also rendered in gently nostalgic black-and-white, although it feels even more vivid than Technicolor -- is simply a small masterpiece. It's one of my favorite horror films of all time, right up there with the Boris Karloff "Frankenstein" films (to which "Frankenweenie" pays loving tribute). Young Victor (Barret Oliver) grieves when his beloved pit bull, Sparky, is hit by a car. His parents (Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern) are concerned, but they trust him to get back on track. Inspired by a lecture in science class (rendered by hilariously deadpan Paul Bartel), Victor gathers up some tubes and wires and rigs up a contraption to electrify Sparky back to life.

When Sparky revives, emerging from the white blanket draped over him on the "operating" table, he's newly decorated with raggedy stitches and little bolts sticking out of his neck -- but he's still the same old Sparky, jumping up and down with delight and greeting his master with affectionate licks. Victor's neighbors don't understand, though; they think Sparky is a monster and try to destroy him. In the space of less than half an hour, Burton tells a story of operatic proportions, replete with brave acts, sick jokes, meaningful epiphanies and lots of love. And, of course, a happy ending. Burton's vision is undeniably warped and gloomy -- it's part of what we love him for. But he always wears his heart on his mad scientist's sleeve.

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Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

MORE FROM Stephanie Zacharek

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