Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (4K UHD Review)
Dec 20, 2023
[Editor’s Note: This film review is by veteran Bits contributor Adam Jahnke, newly-expanded from his own review of the 2008 Blu-ray. The 4K video, audio, and special features comments are by Bits editor-in-chief Bill Hunt.]
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is one of those rare films that has become a ubiquitous holiday tradition and merchandising goldmine, without ever losing its status as a beloved cult classic. It’s a testament to the purity of Burton’s vision and the work of his key collaborators, including director Henry Selick, composer Danny Elfman, and screenwriters Caroline Thompson and Michael McDowell. But in 1982, when Burton first conceived of the project, the road to success was anything but guaranteed.
Back then, Burton was an animator toiling away at Disney. The studio was willing to take a few chances in those days and Burton had just finished his first short film, Vincent, a stop-motion tribute to his favorite actor, Vincent Price. The Nightmare Before Christmas started life as a three-page poem combining Burton’s favorite holidays, Halloween and Christmas. He thought it could work as a half-hour TV special along the lines of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So he worked on concept art and storyboards with fellow Disney artists Rick Heinrichs and Henry Selick until the studio decided the project was just too weird and macabre for them to deal with.
By the early 1990s, things had changed. Burton had left Disney and established himself as a singular talent with movies like Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, and Batman. The runaway success of his Caped Crusader movie allowed Burton to write his own ticket and resurrect his passion project. Disney still owned the rights to Nightmare, so Burton returned to the studio to produce and oversee the production with Selick directing.
While trying to crack the screenplay, Burton decided the film needed to be a musical. Danny Elfman, former leader of the uncategorizable band The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, and its only slightly more definable off-shoot Oingo Boingo, was the obvious choice to write the songs. He had transitioned to film scoring at the prodding of Burton and the late, great Paul Reubens with Pee-wee’s Big Adventure and had scored all of Burton’s subsequent films.
Even though Disney was now willing to roll the dice Oogie Boogie-style on Nightmare, they were still hedging their bets. Initially, the PG-rated film was released through the studio’s more adult-oriented division, Touchstone Pictures. It wasn’t until the film found an audience (and, perhaps not coincidentally, started to sell a lot of merch) that Disney tried to reclaim it as its own.
The film itself turned out to be just about as perfect a movie as Tim Burton has ever devised. It’s a pitch-perfect blend of the macabre and the merry, dark and twisted but also remarkably cheerful and upbeat. It hearkens back to beloved childhood favorites like Rudolph and Mad Monster Party, yet asserts its own personality and style within minutes.
Burton is an unusual filmmaker for a lot of reasons. If you subscribe to the auteur theory, he’s even more of an oddity. Almost all his movies bear his unique stamp. But perhaps more than most filmmakers, his best movies are done in close collaboration with others. Nowhere is that more apparent than in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton absolutely deserves his possessive pre-title credit. Even though it’s such a simple and perfect idea that you’re amazed hadn’t already been done, it clearly could have come from no one else but Tim Burton. However, the movie would be unimaginable without the contributions of Danny Elfman and director Henry Selick.
Elfman’s score is as much a part of this movie as its design and animation, and it ranks among his best works, if not his all-time best. The songs alone could have been Elfman’s crowning achievement, but it would be a mistake to overlook his soulful singing performance as Jack. Chris Sarandon provides Jack’s speaking voice and he’s great too. But the heavy lifting, the emotion, and the crux of Jack’s journey is conveyed through song. Not to take anything away from Sarandon, but his presence is almost superfluous. Elfman probably could have shouldered the entire load on his own.
In addition to Sarandon and Elfman, the entire vocal cast gives instantly iconic performances. Burton had worked with several of them already, including Beetlejuice alumni Catherine O’Hara as the melancholy Sally and Glenn Shadix as the two-faced Mayor. O’Hara also voices Shock, one of the three trick-or-treaters, alongside Elfman (as Barrel) and Paul Reubens (as Lock). And stage actor Ken Page creates a villain for the ages as Oogie Boogie, belting out his signature tune with all the deep-throated gusto it deserves.
As for Selick, Burton at this stage in his career would likely not have been capable of directing a feature-length stop-motion film alone. He had too many irons in the fire and stop-motion is a medium that requires absolute concentration. Fortunately, Selick understood Burton’s vision completely and did a phenomenal job interpreting it to film. The project needed someone who appreciated not just the design but also the story and the characters. Selick and his team gave this movie heart and soul beyond what a work-for-hire director would have given.
The Nightmare Before Christmas was shot on 35 mm photochemical film (specifically slow Eastman EXR 100T 5248 stock) by cinematographer Pete Kozachik (Coraline, Corpse Bride), using a vintage Mitchell Standard camera with spherical lenses (in 17-24 mm focal lengths), and it was finished at an intended theatrical aspect ratio of 1.66:1. For its debut on Ultra HD, Disney has produced a new 4K scan of the original camera negative, with additional digital mastering, clean-up, and high dynamic range grading approved by the director. It’s presented on disc in the correct 1.66 ratio, with the film alone encoded on a UHD-66 disc to achieve a maximum average video data rate. The resulting image is genuinely exquisite, with crisp detail, lovely and refined texturing, and not a hint of DNR or edge enhancement in sight. Film grain is very fine but present and organic. The palette is vibrant indeed, with the HDR grade (available on disc in HDR10 only) rendering colors that are more richly saturated and nuanced than ever before. The shadows are deeply black, while retaining better detail, and the highlights are boldly luminous and lifelike. Frankly, it would be difficult to imagine this film looking better than it does here—every bit of detail present in the negative is in evidence. This is a beautiful 4K image.
Primary English audio on the 4K disc is available in the same lossless 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix found on the previous Blu-ray releases, and it remains wonderful as ever. The soundstage is big and wide, with outstanding fidelity and precision that benefits Elfman’s playful score well. The mix is highly immersive, with smooth and fluid panning, as well as effective use of the surround channels for music in particular, not to mention light directional and environmental cues. Dialogue is clearly rendered at all times, and there’s a pleasing foundation of bass. Additional audio options on the 4K disc include English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, Castilian 5.1 DTS Surround, and French, Spanish (Latin American), German, Italian, and Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Castilian, Spanish (Latin American), German, Italian, Japanese, Dutch, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, and Swedish.
For the record, the Blu-ray in this package offers its audio in English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Descriptive Audio, and French, Spanish (Latin American), and Japanese 5.1 Dolby Digital formats, with subtitles available in English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Japanese.
There are no special features on Disney’s new 4K Ultra HD disc, however the package also includes the film in 1080p HD on Blu-ray. This disc has been newly authored with the same menus as the 4K disc, and while it appears to be the same HD master as the 2013 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray, the good news is that it also appears to be a much better encoding of it (averaging about 10 Mbps higher than before). The Blu-ray includes the following legacy special features:
Most of this material originated with the either 2000 Special Edition DVD release or the 2008 Collector’s Edition Blu-ray. The audio commentary with Burton, Selick, and Elfman is a fantastic and entertaining listen, with plenty of production detail. Frankenweenie is, of course, Burton’s 1984 black and white short about a young scientist who tries to bring his beloved dog back to life. Also included are the previous Jack’s Haunted Mansion Holiday Tour video, the DVD’s making-of documentary, and various deleted scenes, storyboards, and marketing materials. A Digital copy code is also included on a paper insert.
Unfortunately, a number of extras haven’t carried over from previous editions, so you may wish to hang on to those discs, particularly the 2000 DVD (which included an alternate commentary with the director and cinematographer) and the 2011 Blu-ray 3D Combo release, which offered the film in 3D plus additional video-based features (including Burton’s Vincent short film from 1982, an additional deleted scene, and a number of concept art galleries and animation tests). A complete list of legacy features missing from the new 4K package includes:
It seems likely that most of these features were omitted to lend more disc space to the better Blu-ray video encode and also to simplify the authoring. It should also be noted that the original commentary with Selick and Kozachik hasn’t been available since the 2000 DVD. So again, be sure to keep those previous discs as necessary.
The Nightmare Before Christmas deserves to be traditional viewing every Halloween night. Nothing else captures the magic of both Halloween and Christmas as well as this film does. For those of us who believe the holiday season officially begins in October and not November, it wonderfully sums up our joy at Halloween and helps to build our excitement for the holidays still to come. And if you do plan to watch this film at home, there’s absolutely no better way to do so than via Disney’s fantastic new 4K Ultra HD release, which deserves a place on every film and animation enthusiast’s video shelf.
On behalf of all of us here at The Digital Bits, may we be the first to wish you a Happy Halloween and a very Merry Christmas!
- Adam Jahnke and Bill Hunt
(You can follow Adam on social media on Facebook as well as his Jahnke’s Electric Theater Facebook page. You can also read his Disney Plus-Or-Minus on Substack.)
(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)Reviewed by: Review Date: Format: Film/Program Grade: Video Grade: Audio Grade: Extras Grade: [Editor’s Note: This film review is by veteran Bits contributor Adam Jahnke, newly-expanded from his own review of the 2008 Blu-ray. The 4K video, audio, and special features comments are by Bits editor-in-chief Bill Hunt.]Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before ChristmasVincentThe Nightmare Before ChristmasRudolph the Red-Nosed ReindeerPee-wee’s Big AdventureBeetlejuiceBatmanNightmarePee-wee’s Big AdventureNightmareRudolphMad Monster PartyThe Nightmare Before ChristmasBeetlejuiceThe Nightmare Before ChristmasCoralineCorpse Bride20th Anniversary EditionAudio Commentary with Tim Burton, Henry Selick, and Danny ElfmanSong SelectionWhat’s This? Jack’s Haunted Mansion Holiday TourTim Burton’s Early Film: FrankenweenieTim Burton’s Original Poem Narrated by Christopher LeeThe Making of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before ChristmasDeleted Storyboards: Behemoth SingingDeleted Storyboards: Oogie Boogie with Dancing BugsDeleted Storyboards: Alternate Identity of Oogie BoogieDeleted Animated Sequences: Vampire Hockey PlayersDeleted Animated Sequences: Lock, Shock, and BarrelDeleted Animated Sequences: Oogie Boogie Shadow DanceStoryboard-to-Film ComparisonPostersTeaser TrailerTrailerSpecial EditionCollector’s EditionFrankenweenieJack’s Haunted Mansion Holiday TourVincentAudio Commentary with Henry Selick and Pete KozachikVincentIntroduction by Tim BurtonHalloween Town: Jack Skellinton Character DesignsHalloween Town: Jack Skellington Animation Tests (with Selick commentary)Halloween Town: Jack’s Tower Concept ArtHalloween Town: Sally Character DesignsHalloween Town: Sally Animation Tests (with Selick commentary)Halloween Town: Sally’s Bedroom and Kitchen Concept ArtHalloween Town: Oogie Bogie Character DesignsHalloween Town: Oogie’s Lair Concept ArtHalloween Town: Evil Scientist and Igor Character DesignsHalloween Town: The Laboratory Concept ArtHalloween Town: Lock, Shock, and Barrel Character DesignsHalloween Town: The Treehouse Concept ArtHalloween Town: The Citizens Character DesignsHalloween Town: Zero Animation TestsHalloween Town: Halloween Town Concept ArtChristmas Town: Santa Claus Character DesignsChristmas Town: Santa’s Helpers Character DesignsChristmas Town: Concept ArtDeleted Animated Sequences: Jack’s Scientific ExperimentsThe Real World: Character DesignsThe Real World: Concept ArtTim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas 3DThe Nightmare Before ChristmasThe Digital Bits- Adam Jahnke and Bill Hunt(You can follow Adam on social media on Facebook as well as his Jahnke’s Electric Theater Facebook page. You can also read his Disney Plus-Or-Minus on Substack.)(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)