When it was released in 1993, Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was a groundbreaking combination of claymation, stop-motion animation, and flair. And I mean flair like it’s defined in the Oxford English Dictionary: “smartness of style, manner, etc.” Characters popped off the screen with a vitality rarely seen even in live action films. The sets were breathtaking, the sheer invention stunning. The story, concerning Jack Skellington’s (voice of Chris Sarandon) attempt to bring Christmas to Halloweentown, hardly mattered.
Now, re-released to selected IMAX theaters, it’s the same movie we know and love with one key difference: Disney used its new Digital 3D technology to rejigger the look. At face value, the classic is perfect for this treatment. Bold and mesmerizing to begin with, Nightmare could only be better in 3D.
The new Nightmare, however, is only marginally improved. You can repaint the house a different color, but the floor plan remains the same. The 3D is cool, but it’s never overwhelming and mostly feels unnecessary, even gimmicky. Seeing the movie on an IMAX screen, which allows us to comprehend the literal depths of Burton’s sets and appreciate the genius of his creations, alters the movie more than the 3D. Burton’s work is better when it’s 50 feet tall.
The reissue does beg one question, however: why? Yes, the technology is fresh, Halloween is coming up, and a new generation of kids might see Nightmare for the first time. But it smells like a moneymaking scheme dreamed up by the studio folks in some clandestine Hollywood meeting. Cash, of course, drives all re-releases. The movie has enjoyed a couple of second lives on DVD, recently surpassing $70 million in worldwide sales. It’s an impressive feat for a flick that grossed a measly $191,232 on its first opening weekend. (Over this year’s first weekend, in only 200 IMAX theaters, the film earned $3,277,004.)
As an isolated incident, this Nightmare scenario isn’t scary. It’s wonderful that a new batch of 10-year-olds will be exposed to a Burton movie that’s not the overrated Corpse Bride. But Disney didn’t develop the technology for a one-off. It’s conceivable the company will trot out a series of 3D movies — Aladdin 3D, The Little Mermaid 3D, Bambi 3D. Disney won’t have to make a new movie for decades. Not necessarily a bad thing, given its recent history, but not looking forward, either.
This is not the first time a reissue has been marketed as “new and different,” to reveal only limited changes (the Star Wars trilogy comes to mind). But it’s targeting viewers who may not recognize the ploy or worse, are so used to repurposing — through TV, DVDs, and video games — that the lack of novelty doesn’t strike them as tedious. In the grand tradition of Greatest Hits compilations and box sets in music, the movie industry is offering its own repackaging. In a digital animation era, where cartoons are meticulously rendered, Nightmare plays the role of elder statesman. It’s not quite out of date, but rapidly approaching the status of relic.
Disney Digital 3D charts a dangerous path. Sure, you might not mind going back to see Nightmare again but what about two years from now, when The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea and Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World come to an IMAX theater near you? Will you want to take the kiddies? Not a chance. But if Nightmare is any indication, the House of Mouse doesn’t care what you want, only that you spend your money.