The Nightmare Before Christmas (3D)

When it first came out in 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas struck me as the ideal Tim Burton project in all the wrong ways: no humans, no actors, just spooky design and easily manipulable stop-motion figures. Time, however, has bestowed more charm on this macabre but ebullient musical fantasy. It’s a Rankin-Bass holiday special filtered through Burton’s manic-depressive sensibility; as such, it offers a wealth of offbeat pleasures, many of which are magnified by the film’s new upgrade to “Disney Digital 3D.”

After a newly 3D-ized version of John Lasseter’s 1989 short “Knick Knack” (about a snowman trying to escape his snowglobe to get near a fetching femme figurine), the movie proper kicks in. What’s nice about the new Nightmare Before Christmas is that it isn’t fundamentally new at all; it hasn’t been tarted up with new shots of things poking out at the audience (although when an object or character does make a move towards the “camera,” the 3D remastering makes the most of it). Mostly, the technology adds an enchanting depth to the gothic landscapes and the shots teeming with bizarre characters. And the polarized glasses, much more advanced than the old red-and-blue cardboard things and big enough to fit over your own glasses if you wear them, won’t leave you with a souvenir in the form of a headache.

The movie itself remains the same dark-and-light fable beloved by so many goths during the last thirteen years. Jack Skellington (speaking voice by Chris Sarandon, singing voice by Danny Elfman, who also composed the music and songs) is the “pumpkin king” of Halloweentown, the man responsible for bringing the very best in the ghastly and the morbid to the eager townspeople. Jack has grown weary of his job, though; he wants something more than the same old thing every October. He discovers a doorway to Christmasland, where Santa Claus prepares for his own yearly blowout. Jack decides to co-opt Christmas for his own purposes, over the objections of stitched-together Sally (Catherine O’Hara), who’s infatuated with him.

The Nightmare Before Christmas is almost wall-to-wall songs, realized by Elfman in his usual bombastic mode; the former lead singer of Oingo Boingo is not your go-to guy when it comes to soft, subtle melodies (Sally’s wistful number is the only real disappointment), but let him loose on the gleefully mischievous “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” (“Throw him in a box/Bury him for ninety years/Then see if he talks”) or the rambunctious “Oogie Boogie’s Song” (“Well if I’m feelin’ antsy/And there’s nothin’ much to do/I might just cook a special batch/Of snake and spider stew”) and Elfman’s grinning-skull showman side pops out. Director Henry Selick, who later made James and the Giant Peach (let’s pass over his live-action disaster Monkeybone in silence) and is now adapting Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, gives the stop-motion characters as much heart and soul as they’ll hold. The only thing sorely missing is a vocal cameo by the likes of Christopher Lee or Vincent Price (who died a couple of weeks after the film’s October 13, 1993 premiere; I like to think Burton showed him a print beforehand).

The movie is a perfect Halloween perennial, just short enough not to wear out its welcome and just long enough to brushstroke its Pagan vs. Christian subtext (the clear winner is neither — suggesting that the denizens of Samhain and Yule should stick to their specialties). It’s been available on a nicely tricked-out DVD (which includes Burton’s superb short films “Vincent” and “Frankenweenie”) for years. So should you make the trip to see it, again or for the first time, in 3D? Well, the other thing about the remastering job is that the digital projection makes this the sharpest version of Nightmare Before Christmas you’re ever likely to see. This is a fine way to see the film for the first time, or with new eyes.

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