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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)

Frankenweenie (2D)
Despite retrospectively defending his older work and enjoying Sweeney Todd a whole lot more than I thought I would, I pretty much gave up on Tim Burton when he made it abundantly clear he had no interest in growing as a filmmaker. Retooling the same themes and images over and over isn’t a criminal offense (Wes Anderson is still getting away with it, Dario Argento got away with it for a couple of decades), but Burton also has the dubious habit of making some supremely obnoxious movies over the last decade, specifically uber-hits Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland (I haven’t seen Dark Shadows). Burton semi-recently returned to his animation roots with The Corpse Bride, which bared every one of his visual and thematic trademarks. More telling, it was an utter bore. As a pseudo-remake of one of an early short (another obvious homage to period B-movies) and the stop-motion animated follow-up to The Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie came to theaters dangling enough red flags to keep me from spending my money on it. But now I’ve been sent a copy to review and I’m forced to face my negative assumptions.

Being a pseudo-remake, I assumed Frankenweenie was some kind of ne plus ultra sampling of Burton’s refusal to challenge himself. Beyond the obvious return to old material, this voice cast is brimming with familiar names that helped establish Burton as a ‘name’ director (Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Landau) and its major character designs are recycled from the director’s other early short subjects (the title dog is looks like the dog from Family Dog and Vincent is a direct analogue to the title character of, well, Vincent). The good news is that, even though Burton hasn’t moved on as a filmmaker, Frankenweenie isn’t a complete retread of the original short and, as such, is pretty entertaining on its own terms. Burton uses the extra time to pad out the mythology of his little universe and say something about conservative America’s ongoing issues with modern science and public education (I’m surprised Fox News didn’t pick up on it). Or perhaps he’s just reiterating his favourite morals about not judging strange people. Like The Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie is a rather expensive, time-consuming practice in analyzing 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) aren’t concerned with current idiosyncrasies; they’re looking back into idiosyncratic childhood.

Frankenweenie (2D)
In many ways, Frankenweenie is just as much a follow-up to Ed Wood as it is a follow-up to Corpse Bride. It sees Burton once again working within the constraints ‘50s era black & white photography style. There are some expansive, impressionistic, James Whale-like images, but 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 without Mars Attacks’ satirical approach. The difference is that Ed Wood pays homage to, well, filmmaker Ed Wood and his movies, whereas Frankenweenie is a bit more of a ‘30s-‘60s catchall, especially the third act, which features callouts to everything from James Whale and Tod Browning, to the drive-in era and kaiju classic Gamera. And, just because the tone doesn’t call for it, Burton even throws in a bit of his beloved Hammer by including footage of Christopher Lee in Dracula (1968, aka The Horror of Dracula). Frankenweenie also has the fortunate distinction of actually being funny, which is something that has been missing from Burton’s oeuvre since Sleepy Hollow. 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 physical gags aren’t as amusing, but at least they give 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.

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 just 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 were directed by 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, James and the Giant Peach and Mars Attacks, Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this film and Dark Shadows). 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. 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 suits of some kind. 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 artefacts.

Frankenweenie (2D)

Video


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 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 colour with zero blocking noise and only the slightest hint of edge enhancement.

Frankenweenie (2D)

Audio


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 song 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.

Frankenweenie (2D)

Extras


The special features start with 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) briefly covers an exhibition of the film’s sketches, sets, props, and puppets, including further interviews with Burton and his producers. Extras end with a new short entitled Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers (2:30, HD), the original live-action Frankenweenie short (which can also be seen on the Nightmare Before Christmas Blu-ray, 30:00, SD), a Plain White Ts Pet Semetary music video (The Ramones are rolling in their graves, 3:50, HD), and trailers.

Frankenweenie (2D)

Overall


Frankenweenie really could’ve been a tone-deaf disaster, but it’s quite entertaining and charming enough to overcome any of its major shortcomings. I can’t imagine it having the enduring legacy of The Nightmare Before Christmas (in fact, I can’t imagine it have any legacy outside of perhaps some cult fans), but that’s definitely a step up from the entirely forgettable Corpse Bride and the eye-gougingly annoying Alice in Wonderland. This Blu-ray presentation is positively gorgeous, limited only by the dark, black & white photography, and the DTS-HD MA soundtrack is a perfect arena for Danny Elfman’s enduring musical score. The extras are brief, but cover the important bases.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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