Once upon a time in 1984 Tim Burton left Disney after making a short called Frankenweenie, in which a grieving boy brought his beloved dog back to life, a tale that Disney test audiences found too dark and inappropriate for children.
Flash forward to 2012 and Burton’s Frankenweenie is just right for the contemporary Disney audiences that embraced Paranorman, especially since Frankenweenie combines the wonders of laborious stop-motion animation (five seconds of end product equals a week’s work of 33 animators) with 3D (a must-have for a kid audience) and black-and-white (a trip to the past for the kids) – an interesting combination indeed.
In terms of plot Frankenweenie is a lovely story of lonely boy Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), who likes cinema and science, connecting emotionally only to his hyperactive, love-bursting dog Sparky, who stars in his movies and also ends up being his biggest science experiment. Victor’s parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short), who seem to be lifted off the Wimpy Kid franchise, wish their kid would be more ‘normal’ and spend time outdoors occupying himself sports and other conventional ‘boy’ activities. No comment.
Sports prove to be deadly for Sparky, and he dies under the wheels of a car – a moment poignant and painful, which Burton shot with so much tact and understanding that it deserves a standing ovation (sometimes less is really more, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see the director make this creative choice when others go for the drama queen emotional porn without thinking twice).
After Sparky passes away, Victor is heart-broken and lost, but one day weird science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) who looks like Vincent Price and has a strong Slavic accent shows the kids scientific evidence of life after death, with a little help from electricity. Victor springs into action and thanks to the thunderstorm above his attic laboratory. Sparky comes back to life, patched here and there, smelly, leaking liquids and losing body parts but still as loving and hyper as before. The only difference is that now he has to be charged from time to time.
Things go awry when the folks in town find out what Victor did. They are not a great bunch to start off with, what with the crooked Edgar “E” Gore (voiced by Atticus Shaffer), victory-fixated school nerds, Weird Girl (voiced by Catherine O’Hara) and her hilariously nuts cat, and obnoxious neighbour Mr. Burgemeister (also voiced by Short) and his annoying niece (Winona Ryder). But they become completely zombiefied as an angry mob moved by the suburban groupthink of hate and intolerance towards the Other. That’s where the movie can get a little creepy for the younger viewers (but will wake up the parents, no doubt).
Just in case parents get bored (which is unlikely, because Frankenweenie is funny) they have a number of intertextual references to play with, from the classic monster movies to The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. The film embraces many of its influences and pays homage to Mary Shelley, who began the whole ordeal a long time ago, which is nice. By the end of the movie the references grow wider and broader, including our favourite Godzilla and the seemingly ubiquitous zombies. So fun is all around.
The transfer to Blu-ray is done masterfully here. Image is crisp and all the small details of the tiny sets and minute puppets are discernible without any difficulty – which amazes yet again, especially when we think how much time and effort has been poured into each shot. The quality of 3D lets the home viewers appreciate all that even more. The color nuances of the black-and-white picture are also astounding, actually adding to the overall visual spectacle, and not taking anything away from it. This is one picture where imagination truly runs free.
This is the best use of stop-motion animation since Coraline and Burton works with 3D beautifully instead of abusing it to bring the (already livelier puppets, when compared to their computer animated mates) even more to life. With Frankenweenie Burton really created a world to travel to, and be lost in.
The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track adds to the overall experience of Frankenweenie by adding depth to the proceedings and creating a unique atmosphere of the weird town with its pale, elongated inhabitants whose mere movements seem painful and eerie. Surround effects and the track in general are modest and never overpowering, as Burton also opts for the ‘less is more’ approach here, until the chaos of the mob scene and the numerous monsters running amok, where the track adds drama to the proceedings.
“Captain Sparky Vs. The Flying Saucers” is a short dedicated to the home movie made by Victor and starring the always cheerful Sparky.
“Miniatures In Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life” shows the process of shooting minute puppets in realistic miniature sets in great detail, and will be interesting for anyone who loves to know the secrets of this particular technique. The use of color in the black-and-white picture is an insightful discussion.
“Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit” discusses the exhibit of puppets, tiny props, artwork and sets that have showed all over the world. Very amusing.
“Original Live Action Frankenweenie Short Film” is the short made back in 1984, which was previously included on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD.
“Music Video: Plain White T’s” is a music video to the song “Pet Sematary”.
The pack could do with more interviews from the director and the voice actors but it mostly focuses on the more technical aspects particular to stop-motion animation.
Verdict: Out of all modern movies that feature parts of other movies pieced together like Sparky Frankenstein , this is the best one. Frankenweenie is a perfect showcase of both how much we as adults resist to grow up and how our children have evolved as an audience in the recent decades. A must-see.