Directed by Tim Burton and based on his own 1984 short film of the same name, 2012's stop motion animated feature Frankenweenie brings us to the small town of New Holland and introduces us to Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), an awkward kid whose mother (Catharine O'Hara) and father (Martin Short) worry that he doesn't have many friends. This doesn't bother Victor, however, he's completely content making amateur monster movies in the family's backyard starring his dog, Sparky.
Things change for Victor when the weird girl at school presents him with a cat turd she's rescued from the litter box in the shape of the letter V. Apparently her cat, Mr. Whiskers, dreams about people and poops their first initial - and when that happens, something big occurs. Victor understandably pays this no mind but then, when his father pressures him to try baseball, the cat's omen proves more reliable than anyone thought. Victor smacks the ball and Sparky, observing from the stands, gives chase. Unfortunately, that chase takes him into the road where he's hit by a car. The family bury him but Victor gets an idea when the new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (a scene stealing Martin Landau), plants a seed in his brain. Before you know it, Victor has used lightning to reanimate his dearly departed best friend. When some of the other kids in school learn of this, they figure he's a shoe in to win the upcoming science contest and so they head to the nearby pet cemetery in hopes of digging up dead animals to outdo Victor - but of course, all of this comes with consequence and the town of New Holland will never be the same, much to the dismay of the town's mayor, Mr. Burgemeister (Short again), and his niece Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), who just so happen to live next door to the Frankenstein family.
Frankenweenie is a bit of a mixed bag. While in many ways it's a return to the darker material that Burton made a name for himself with, it also lacks the heart that made much of that early work resonate with audiences. Though the director's love for classic monster movies is once again on full display (there are references throughout the film to Universal monster movies, Hammer Horror classics, the literary work of Mary Shelley, Vincent Price pictures and even a few nods to Japanese Kaiju films) the film is a simple blend of the classic Frankenstein horror tragedy mixed up with 'a boy and his dog' style folk story. The problem is that the 'boy and his dog' aspect of the story lacks. The monster mayhem is fun and provides enough entertainment value to carry the picture but while Vincent is willing to defy the laws of nature to bring his best friend back to life, we don't quite get resonance we want from their interactions together. A romantic subplot that is strongly hinted at between Vincent and Elsa, who do most of their talking through a hole in the fence, is cute but doesn't wind up going anywhere while Sparky's initial death fails to hit as hard as it needs to. What made the short film so charming - heart and character - is sadly short changed here in favor of some admittedly very impressive visuals and great gothic atmosphere. The supporting characters in the film should have fleshed out the cast in interesting ways but instead add very little to the picture aside from occasionally effective comic relief.
The film does deserve credit for slyly working in a nice message, a moral even. At one point Rzykruski, replaced in his position by the gym teacher because of his unorthodox ways, discusses with Victor the perils of science. During this brief exchange he notes the importance of intentions and of being true to yourself, a message which obviously effects Victor and which he in turn carries throughout the picture. In a day and age where pictures aimed a younger audience play to the lowest common denominator, it's nice to see a film like this that expresses in interesting and creative ways the importance of individualism.
The film does have some effective moments of humor scattered throughout and there are bits and pieces where Victor's unrequited love for Sparky shines through but it never quite feels true. Thankfully the visuals are strong enough to carry the picture, and if the characters never quite reach the believably alive stature of those seen in The Nightmare Before Christmas they occasionally come quite close. The design work here, which looks to be somewhere between that scene in the aforementioned film and the later The Corpse Bride, has all the quirky, weird detail you'd expect from one of Burton's stop motion projects but the re-animated pets wind up with more appeal than the human characters. As the various animals are brought back to life and go through different changes brought about by the impure motives of Vincent's fellow classmates the movie reaches some impressive heights of mayhem - but by the time it's all said and done, there's a bit too much wasted space. The end result is good, but it could and should have been great.
Frankenweenie arrives on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85.1 in a gorgeous AVC encoded 1080p high definition presentation. The black and white image shows loads of detail visible not only in the various models brought to life in the stop motion animation technique used in the film but in the backgrounds and sets as well - you can see the dust on top of a book in one scene and not the texture of the dried parsley used as leaves in an outdoor scene. Black levels are rich and deep while shadow detail, an important part of the look of this particular movie, remains revelatory and impressive. Contrast looks spot on, with clean whites and every shade of grey imaginable filling in the rest of the movie perfectly. There are no problems with compression artifacts or edge enhancement nor is there any obvious filtering and we wind up with a deep, strong image that offers impressive depth throughout. This is pretty much a reference quality image.
Note: Although an MVC encoded 3D version is included (on its own disc) compatible hardware was not available at the time of this review.
Also earning top marks all around is the English language DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track included on the disc. Dialogue, for the most part, stays in the front of the mix but surrounds are used throughout the movie to help build atmosphere and tension - sometimes with impressive subtlety, other times with fairly bombastic aplomb. The more action intensive scenes make great use of the rear channels to fill in the soundstage with crowd noise and foley effects, while the more subdued and dramatic moments let the Danny Elfman score spread out very nicely indeed. Bass response is strong, tight and well placed without ever burying the voice actors. The film's finale sounds great, with the different creatures roaming New Holland causing complete and utter chaos but pay attention to other key scenes as well, such as Sparky's reanimation and the classroom scene. A lot of attention to detail shows up here and the movie is all the better for it.
A French language DTS-HD HR 7.1 track is included here too, as is a Spanish language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix while Disney offers up subtitles in English, English SDH, French and Spanish.
Though this isn't as jam packed with extras as you might expect it to be, there are a few decent supplements included on this disc starting with the twenty three minute behind the scenes featurette, Miniatures In Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie To Life. The movie's producer, Allison Abbate, basically guides us through this one as she starts off noting why the movie was made in England (Burton residing there was a key factor though not the only one) before giving us a tour of the studio space where all of the modeling and design was done. We get some interviews with the various artists who worked in different capacities on the project as well as some input from Burton himself and we learn how mannerisms from the voice actors were used to help give further personality to the characters originally based off of the live action short and Burton's original sketches. This is a bit on the short side given the complexity of the technique behind the feature, but it's well done and definitely worth checking out.
The four minute Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit piece is a quick look at how Disney took some of Burton's art and some of the models used in the movie on the road, debuting them at the San Diego Comic Con in 2012 and then bringing them around the world to locations as varied as Tokyo and Toronto. It's brief, but it gives us some more insight into the detail and dedication that went into crafting the models used in the movie. The two minute Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers is a fun short made up as one of Vincent's little films in which Sparky takes on some aliens lead by the neighborhood cat. It's quite, but it's cute and could have easily fit right into the feature itself.
Of course, the original thirty minute Frankenweenie short film made in 1984 with Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall playing the parents and Barret Oliver as Vincent is included here too. The live action inspiration for the stop motion feature shares many of the same set pieces as the feature and if it's not as slick and polished, it is just as charming.
Rounding out the extras is a music video for the Plain White T's cover of Pet Semetary, originally recorded by The Ramones (who the T's dedicate the video to). The video mixes in clips from the movie. Trailers for a few other Disney movies play before the main menus load but no trailer for the feature itself is found on the disc. All of the extras on the disc are presented with high definition video and standard definition audio.
In addition to 2D and 3D Blu-ray discs, this release also includes a DVD version of the movie and a digital copy of the movie. All of these fit inside a standard size Blu-ray case that fits nicely inside an embossed metallic slip cover.
Frankenweenie is good, not great. While it is beautiful to look at and a masterpiece in terms of technical achievement, it doesn't quite manage to capture the heart that made the short film it's based on so popular. With that said, while it doesn't connect with us the way it probably should have, it is at least a fun and entertaining picture with loads of style and atmosphere. Disney's Blu-ray release looks and sounds amazing and includes a few decent extras as well, making it easy enough to recommend.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.