After unexpectedly losing his beloved dog, Sparky (Frank Welker), young filmmaker/inventor Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life – with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor's fellow students, teachers, and the entire town learn that getting a new ‘leash on life’ can be monstrous. (From Disney’s original synopsis)
Being a pseudo-remake, it was easy to assume that 2012’s Frankenweenie would be the ne plus ultra example of Tim Burton’s refusal to challenge himself as a filmmaker. Had the literal return to old material – in this case a live action short Burton made in 1984 – not been a big enough clue, there’d be the familiar names in the voice cast (Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Landau) and the recycled character designs, taken from director’s other early short subjects (the title dog looks like the dog from Family Dog  and the lead character, Vincent, is a direct analogue to the title character of, well, Vincent ). While these assumptions prove accurate and Frankenweenie is an impossibly Burton-esque film, it isn’t a complete retread of the original short and, perhaps more important, it isn’t nearly as obnoxious or dull as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) or Alice in Wonderland (2010). It’s relatively entertaining on its own terms and, at best, even expands upon those oft-tread Burton tropes. The extra runtime offers space to pad out the Fankenweeinie universe and broadens the thematic scope to both explore the nature of death and loss from a child’s point of view (as the short did) and pontificate about conservative America’s ongoing issues with modern science and public education. Or perhaps he’s just reiterating his favorite morals about not judging strange people. Either way, it feels more meaningful than, say, The Corpse Bride (2005), which was a dull, not to mention expensive, practice in analyzing Burton’s most boring personal demons. The difference is that, in the spirit of the reflective theme, Burton and credited screenwriter John August (who wrote Burton’s ultimate daddy-issues-fest Big Fish, 2003) aren’t concerned with current idiosyncrasies; they’re looking back into idiosyncratic childhood.
In many ways, Frankenweenie is just as much a follow-up to Ed Wood (1994) as it is a follow-up to Corpse Bride. It sees Burton once again working within the constraints ‘50s era black & white photography style and experimenting with impressionistic, James Whale-like images, yet a lot of the story is told through a more static look that recalls Stefan Czapsky’s lo-fi Ed Wood photography. Both films also celebrate the B-cinema Burton grew up on, minus the satirical approach of Mars Attacks! (1996). The difference is that Ed Wood pays homage to something specific (the real Ed Wood), whereas Frankenweenie is a bit more of a ‘30s to ‘60s catchall – especially the third act, which includes callouts to everything from Universal Studios headliners, like Whale and Tod Browning, to the drive-in era and kaiju monster Gamera. Burton even throws in a bit of his beloved Hammer by including footage of Christopher Lee in Dracula (aka: The Horror of Dracula, 1958). Frankenweenie also has the fortunate distinction of actually being funny, which is something that has been missing from Burton’s oeuvre since Sleepy Hollow (1999). For years, the director’s very specific, morbid brand of humour has been shaded by obnoxious special effects and manic Johnny Depp performances. This film is more muted and character-based in its quirky comedic approach. ‘Weird Girl’ (never otherwise named and also voiced by Catherine O'Hara), with her saucer eyes, wispy voice, and her clairvoyant cat poop, is absolutely priceless. The slapstick isn’t as amusing, but at least it gives the film some momentum, unlike the terminally static Corpse Bride. Unfortunately, Burton’s sense of emotional resonance has been off for decades, so the big tear-jerker moments don’t quite land with the intended punch. At best, these are cute, when I believe Burton was aiming for something more akin to genuinely moving.
The animation here is certainly outstanding from a technical standpoint. I’ve never seen stop-motion executed so smoothly and the camera placement is dynamic without drawing to attention to itself. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that you’re watching animation and not actors in ridiculous costumes. Fortunately, the charm of the format isn’t lost in the technical artistry, especially where characters that require different head pieces to speak are concerned, like Mr. Rzykruski's (Martin Landau), who speaks with a delightful jitter. The more complex surfaces, like the grass of the backyard, also feature little, unintentional and beautiful motion artifacts. Every time a stop motion animated feature is released questions, seem to arise concerning exactly how much the credited director had to do with the production. There’s simply so much time and hands-on work involved in the process that no one person can truly hold sway over the entire production. This process is so time consuming that even the editor’s job is mostly done in pre-production. All four of Burton’s stop motion productions (The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach had direction credited to Henry Selick) were made over a long enough period of time that they ended up being released within a year of one of his big budget live-action features (The Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman Returns in 1993 and ‘92, respectfully; James and the Giant Peach and Mars Attacks both 1996; Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory both in 2005; this film and Dark Shadows both in 2012). Unfortunately, someone’s name needs to be on the marquee (Director’s Guild rules practically dictate this), which leaves a legion of filmmakers delegated to the less distinguished end credit line. In this case, there are eight named assistant directors that very possibly deserve as much credit as Burton himself.
The stop motion animation process has been coupled with 3D photography for some time now, starting with the post-conversion 3D re-release of The Nightmare Before Christmas in 2006. I saw it and the post-conversion was awful. Coraline (2009) was then the first to be shot specifically in digital 3D in 2009 and the effect was well-received enough to inspire a regular practice. The process is so popular at this point that Frankenweenie wasn’t even the only 3D stop-motion release of 2012 (the similarly themed ParaNorman was released a couple of months prior). Once again, my review here pertains only to the 2D Blu-ray’s transfer. The animators shot their work in native 3D using Canon EOS Mark II cameras, the same models used for Corpse Bride and ParaNorman. Because Frankenweenie is such a stylized picture, photographically speaking, I’m left without much to talk about in terms of this transfer. The image is crisply black & white and the lighting schemes are almost exclusively set to appear quite dark. Even daylight is obscured and grey, leading to sharp, thick, black shadows and perfectly white highlights. The image hasn’t been altered to appear grainy like film (there’s next to nothing in terms of noise), but the filmmakers have taken effort to make everything appear underexposed. This makes for some nice, soft gradient blends amid the otherwise jet black canvas. The dark bits and hotspot highlights don’t do anything to damage the transfer’s high level of detail. The finest textures of the models and sets are quite complex, despite the absence of color with zero blocking noise and only the slightest hint of edge enhancement.
This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack matches the mixed old-fashioned/new-fangled approach set by the image quality. The dialogue is mostly centered, assuming the characters speaking are on-screen, and the words are always clear. At the same time, the vocal performances veer from tinny to warm and are often slightly inconsistent in terms of volume. I believe this was the intended effect. The effects work is similarly thin for the most part, including what sounds like analogue-collected foley work. This makes for a pleasantly naturalistic approach to an otherwise unnatural process. These basic effects do move through the channels on occasion, but are usually anchored in the middle channel. Though most of the film ticks by without much more than basic ambience, the extended climax is quite loud. Highlights include any experiment sequence, where thunder and lightning play a big role, and creature transformations/attacks that allow for more aggressive directional enhancement. Danny Elfman continues his long, long line of musical compositions for Tim Burton here. He doesn’t attempt to recreate the magic of Nightmare Before Christmas’ songs this time, unlike his Corpse Bride soundtrack, which featured a single, sad little ditty that served only to remind us that we weren’t watching Nightmare Before Christmas. Frankenweenie’s music does remind one of Nightmare Before Christmas, however, mostly because it rarely goes away and tends to tell the story when words are absent.
Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life (23:10, HD) – This behind-the-scenes featurette includes Burton, producers Allison Abbate and Don Hahn, animation director Trey Thomas, puppet hospital supervisor Andy Gent, armature maker Josie Corben, puppet designers Peter Saunders and Ian McKinnen, model maker Paul Davis, art director Alexandra Walker, director of photography Peter Sorg, painter Roy Bell, prop maker Maggie Haden, and animation staff Tobias Fouracre, Mark Waring, and Anthony Elworthy discussing the film’s production in the UK, from expanding the original short into a feature, puppet construction/repair, set and prop construction, production design, and every part of the stop-motion animation process.
Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit (4:40, HD) – A brief look at an exhibition of the film’s sketches, sets, props, and puppets, including further interviews with Burton and his producers.
Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers (2:30, HD)
Frankenweenie 1984 live-action short (30:00, SD)
Plain White Ts “Pet Semetary” music video (3:50, HD)
The images on this page are NOT representative of the Blu-ray image quality.