Directed by Tim Burton
Distributed by Buena Vista
Ah, 2012 shoulda been Tim Burton’s year. As 2011 ended, Burton fans (yes, I count myself as one) had three upcoming flicks to look forward to: Burton’s long in the works adaptation of the classic 60s soap opera “Dark Shadows,” the Burton-produced take on Shadows screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and finally, Burton’s stop-motion remake of his own live-action short film debut, Frankenweenie. Dark Shadows, sadly, failed to connect due to its weak script, and AL:VH, while certainly fun, bore none of the hallmarks of a typical Burton production (perhaps for the best). Fortunately, though, Burton’s final film of the year wound up being his best, as Frankenweenie is a gorgeously produced kids’ flick with loads of heart and laughs in equal measure.
Much like the original short, Frankenweenie follows young Victor Frankenstein, a well meaning, science-loving young lad whose best friend in the world is his beloved pet pup, Sparky. Together, Victor and Sparky pal around and make Super-8 creature features that can’t be too terribly unlike those that Burton probably made as a child himself. Of course, tragedy eventually strikes, tearing Sparky away from his beloved owner. When Victor’s science teacher indirectly gives him the idea to resurrect Sparky, Victor does his namesake proud, creating a massive laboratory that would bring a smile to James Whale’s face, and harnesses the energy within his little town’s nightly thunderstorms to bring his beloved dog back to life.
Hijinx ensue, with the reanimated Sparky getting into zany adventures while Victor tries desperately to keep his secret safe. Of course he can’t, leading to several of Victor’s disturbed classmates attempting to bring their own pets back from the dead with disastrous results. Before long, our young hero must contend with not only keeping his own pet safe but also finding a way to undo the destruction being wrought by a host of monstrous revived animals on his hometown.
Watching this movie had a curious effect on this writer – I really did feel like a kid again, watching Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhands for the first time. Mind you, Frankenweenie isn’t on par with either of those films, but it nails that Burtony magic which I’ve been a fan of for life (and has gone somewhat missing in his last several films). The look of the film, with its beautiful black-and-white photography and seamless stop-motion animation, is just fantastic. Likewise, Danny Elfman’s score is great, sounding more like one of his vintage collaborations with Burton than many of his recent efforts.
The voice acting is all top-notch as well. Charlie Tahan does a fine job as Victor, Martin Short is great as Victor’s father, and Burton regulars Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara put in solid work as well. The standout, though, must be Martin Landau’s performance as Mr. Rzykruski, Victor’s science teacher. Landau’s performance swings back and forth between warmth and hilarious histrionics without ever seeming overwrought. If there is an award out there for best supporting vocal performance in an animated film, my vote’s for Landau.
A shame, then, that the film falters a bit when it comes to its writing. While the movie is suitably charming, the overall story seems somewhat overly stretched, leading to a lagging middle that tends to drag more often than not. It’s as though the filmmakers took the original short film (included on the Blu-ray release), which was perfectly structured, and added too much fat to its armature. It’s still a decent tale, sure, but there are stretches that feel entirely superfluous. Then there are the questions that the movie raises, or plot points that are set up, only to be abandoned (exactly what is up with the thunderstorms that plague Victor’s town, and what effect do they have on his experiments?). In addition, the film’s overall theme is quite slight – a shame, given the depth of some recent children’s films (ParaNorman, I’m looking at you).
Buena Vista’s Blu-ray boasts an utterly gorgeous transfer, as sharp as I’ve ever seen. The black-and-white image stuns – the blacks are inky and deep, the whites are crisp, and the prevalent greys are rich. The DTS-HD 7.1 audio track is wonderful, featuring crystal clear dialogue and dynamic effects that make full use of one’s surround sound system. It’s as perfect a presentation that this film could hope for.
Special features are decent, if not overwhelming. We get: Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers, one of Victor’s short films featuring Sparky as the hero; Miniatures in Motion, a twenty-three-minute documentary which pulls back the curtain on the film’s stop-motion animation; a quick look at the Frankenweenie exhibit which toured the world to promote the film, featuring various pieces of artwork and actual figures from the film; the charming original Frankenweenie short film on which the feature-length flick is based; and a music video for the Plain White T’s fairly wan cover of “Pet Sematary” (props, though, for the dedication to The Ramones at the end). All in all, it’s a decent enough package. One only wishes that the twenty-minute documentary had been much longer, as the process is quite fascinating, but oh well.
Ultimately, if you’re no fan of Burton’s, you already know that this movie isn’t for you. But if you enjoy the man’s particular brand of outlandish visuals and macabre heart, you’ll likely find this tale one worth visiting time and time again.
3 1/2 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5