Tim Burton returns to his stop-motion animation roots by revisiting a tale from one of his early shorts, Frankenweenie. The story focuses on a boy so devoted to his pet dog that even after the dog gets hit by a car he figures out a way to bring him back to life. The film features the vocal talents of Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Tahan as the boy, Victor.
Victor (Charlie Tahan) and his dog Sparky are inseparable best friends. They play together, make movies together, and otherwise monopolize each other’s free time in the quiet little town of New Holland. But one day during an accident, Sparky gets hit by a car and is killed. Victor is devastated and listlessly mopes about the house and school. That is until one day when his science teacher gives a demonstration on how electrical stimulation can affect and even appear to animate a dead frog. And this gives the curious and scientifically-minded Victor an idea.
During one of the many stormy nights that affect New Holland, Victor sets up his ultimate test of the demonstration he saw in class: the effects of a massive dose of electrical current (lightning) on a dead animal (Sparky). After the lightning and the carefully channeled voltage is set upon the subject, Victor finds the result of his experiment in the form of a familiar tail that once again begins to wag. Sparky is back, even if some of him must be stitched up in order to stay together.
Victor tries to keep his new franken-dog a secret, but word eventually slips out. But pretty soon, Victor’s experiment has given several of his classmates similar ideas, even if theirs are perhaps driven by more selfish motives and carried out with less technical precision. And that’s where all of the trouble in the tiny town of New Holland begins, as many of these resurrected animals bring unforeseen consequences.
Once again, Tim Burton has delivered a tale that combines the macabre with child-like fantasy. Only here there is also the unmistakable ode to classic horror films and science fiction from the 1950s. The setting of the quaint suburban town overrun by undead pets and the ever-present splashes of lightning on science-y electrodes and lab tables in this black-and-white landscape quickly reveal an homage to midnight drive-in fare from a bygone era.
Unfortunately, that also spills over to the acting and pacing of the movie. Whether intentional or not, there is a somewhat stilted feel to the dialogue and delivery, as if a dash too much of B-movie spices was thrown into the pot. It doesn’t help that the film is more or less delivered as a drama. Scant touches of humor work their way in here and there, but for the most part every character is playing it a little too straight. And when you have comic veterans like Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara in the roles of Victor’s parents, why not use those talents? If you’re waiting for a little silliness as levity to the story, you might be waiting a while. But more odd is that the pacing of the film is almost intentionally slow, as if it was decided that a seventy-minute film should be stretched out to eighty-three (not counting the credits). No regular Danny Elfman musical numbers to transition from scenes and sections, just slow bike rides and walks to conversations.
I don’t mean to give the impression that the movie is bad, because it certainly isn’t. But it does feel a bit dry for the genre at times. There are so many good elements to the film – including some of the most impressively detailed stop-motion animation and set design I’ve seen – that it really shines a light on those other parts that aren’t up to code. If this was a live-action film, the story, acting and pacing would make it thoroughly mediocre, even with its intriguing premise. But the stop-motion work here is so phenomenal that you can get lost in it alone, and it’s able to raise some of these other less remarkable elements into a whole that is both good and enjoyable. I just wonder what could have been if all the pieces had been cinched up that tightly.
Video / 3D
This is a beautiful looking film, and its transfer to Blu-ray is absolutely stunning. There’s your summary. The crispness of of the image reveals every little detail of the animation and models, including a couple of things they may not have intended for you to see. But most impressive is the color range of this black-and-white image, where meticulous design models and art direction come through even if you can’t see the original colors (although if you watch the main bonus feature, you’ll find that many of these were carefully constructed to imply a specific color scheme). No artifacts or encoding aberrations to speak of, just a sumptuous feast of an immaculate image.
Not only is this the first 3D film I’ve watched in black-and-white, but also the first stop-motion I’ve watched in black-and-white, and I’m very happy to report that the results are an all-around success. There is something about stop-motion’s real world grounding that makes it come alive in 3D in a way that computer animation just can’t. And it’s not in an exaggerated leap-out-of-the-screen way, but simply in visually capturing real depth and space. The meticulous framing of shots and positioning of elements inherent in stop-motion create a perfectly represented, albeit subtle, 3D experience that you really can just let you immerse yourself. And it’s here where Frankenweenie really shines and just becomes a joy to take in.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track didn’t initially strike me as that dynamic, and I think that’s somewhat by design. It’s a reserved track, and in some ways seems to want to sonically harken back to mid-century science fiction. But especially on repeat viewings, it’s actually very rich with little nuances of environmental depth. Surround effects are largely subtle, but occasionally will really engage (such as in the more dramatic third act). In the same way that the 3D isn’t showboating with pop-out gimmicks but rather focusing on very naturalistic depth, so the audio here is very carefully tuned to deceptively beef up the visuals. In fact, the more I revisited the film the more impressed I became.
The most disappointing thing about this set is its lack of unique extras. If you already have The Nightmare Before Christmas on Blu-ray, then this release will largely net you one additional bonus item of any substance. “Miniatures In Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie To Life” (HD, 23:05) is an excellent feature on all of the behind-the-scenes work that went into the film, and should especially excite those with a fondness for the craft of stop-motion animation. It’s actually one of the best snapshot looks I’ve seen on the different facets of production that are involved for a stop-motion film of this scale.
Beyond that, things start to feel a little thin. The touted “all-new” short in the set is “Captain Sparky Vs. The Flying Saucers” (HD, 2:26) which is not only blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in length, but isn’t that different from the home movie that opens the feature film. “Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit” (HD, 4:36) is an infomercial for the traveling art show from the film, and the music video for “Pet Semetary” by Plain White T’s (HD, 3:53) is included as well.
The original live-action short of “Frankenweenie” (HD, 30:03) is also included and is quite an enjoyable extra, assuming of course that you don’t already have it on the Blu-ray of The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, if this is new for you, it is an excellent bonus item, and offers an interesting alternate telling of the story. Even with its faults, I prefer the newer film to the original short. But there are devoted fans of the short who would excitedly vote the other way, and its own uniqueness and craft make it one not to miss.
With Frankenweenie it’s best if you come with the intent of being awed by some truly wonderful stop-motion animation, and won’t be sidetracked by rather so-so pacing, dialogue and acting. These supporting elements certainly aren’t bad, but they’re unremarkable on their own, especially when compared with the technical brilliance that is on display visually. But frankly, that’s enough, and it’s still able to carry this picture. It’s easy to get absorbed by the wonderful craft unfolding before you and to enjoyably lose an hour and a half to a story about a boy’s “mad” scheme to resurrect his best friend. The technical presentation is also top-notch, and once again Disney delivers a stunner of a Blu-ray transfer, both in its 3D and 2D forms. Yes, most of the extras feel like a weak afterthought, but there is still quite enough good here to recommend a purchase amongst fans of stop-motion animation.