Disney // 2012 // 87 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // February 17th, 2013
The electrifying dog is back from beyond the grave!
Remember when Tim Burton was a unique filmmaker whose view on life was so beautifully twisted you couldn't help but be drawn into his world?
There are few things that compare to the unconditional love shared between a boy and his dog. So it's not surprising that Victor takes Sparky's untimely death extremely hard. So hard in fact, he accepts his teacher's challenge, using science to call his closest friend back from the world beyond. And it works! But success comes with a price, one the entire sleepy hamlet of New Holland will pay for...with their lives! (Oh, if only that were true...)
At one point in the film, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, Ed Wood) responds to a troubled Victor (Charlie Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) by saying, "People think science is here (pointing to his head), but it's also here (placing his hand on his heart). The first time, did you love your experiment?" Victor reflects for a moment and lovingly says, "Yes." "And the second time?" Victor sheepishly responds, "No. I just wanted it over." This exchange appears to not only be an appropriate metaphor for Frankenweenie, but for Burton's recent filmography. For better or worse, Tim Burton has become a brand, a visual icon with the counter culture set who continue to wear Jack Skellington on their figurative and literal sleeves. Don't get me wrong. This concept has worked wonders for filmmakers like Walt Disney and George Lucas who've made millions of dollars merchandizing their characters. And yet by selling out, the art itself inevitably suffers.
The original 1984 live-action short Frankenweenie, produced while Tim was still an unhappy animator working for a once great studio like Disney, is a sweet and heartfelt experience. Included here as a bonus feature, the film is as powerful today as it was 30 years ago and showcases what would eventually become Tim's offbeat trademark style. Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. Beetlejuice. Batman. Edward Scissorhands. The Nightmare Before Christmas. All distinct stories happening in deliciously fantastic worlds we relish spending time in. With a love for those classic 1930s Universal monster movies and '50s B-movie sci-fi adventures, Burton and his rag tag team of fellow artists transmitted those passions to us in each and every frame of that beautiful black and white 30-minute short.
Fast-forward 28 years, wherein Hollywood's endless regurgitory creative climate guaranteed that a full-length feature adaptation of this sweet story would be milked for all its worth. I admit, the idea of it being done in stop-motion animation excited me to no end, so I waited with great anticipation alongside all the other Burton faithful. Having already seen and adored Chris Butler and Sam Fell's Paranorman, my expectations rose even higher, going so far as to believe Frankenweenie would cement a fantastic year for an artistic medium long deserving of critical praise and financial success. Yeah, not so much. Domestically, the film failed to even cover its $39 Million budget. And though it continues to sit with a Rotten Tomatoes "Fresh Rating" of nearly 90%, I personally can't help feeling let down.
Frankenweenie is Burton-lite. It looks like Burton, walks like Burton, and talks like Burton but suffers from a lot of talented people working very hard to deliver a product Tim can put his name on, while he's off producing Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and directing Dark Shadows. Crucify me all you want, but it's clear his level of involvement here doesn't come close to Alice in Wonderland or Sweeney Todd, and the film suffers as a result.
For example, the original 30-min story required the serious padding of two additional acts. So Tim turns to frequent collaborator John August, who has been killing me in recent years. I thought Go was a brilliant script, and his work on Big Fish pushed Burton out of his comfort zone to deliver a very different and highly compelling film. But that was more than ten years ago. Since then, we've suffered through Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, The Nines, and the aforementioned train wreck known as Dark Shadows. Instead of giving us more of Victor's relationship with his family and Sparky, we're subjected to a continuous winking parade of genre callbacks and inside jokes, not to mention a science fair subplot in which all the contestants are jealous, self-focused archetypes with little or no redeeming value. August goes so far as to pull the character of Weird Girl from Tim's book The Melancholy Tales of Oyster Boy, giving her and her cat Mr. Whiskers the most grating arc of the bunch.
Some may say I'm being overly critical and unnecessarily harsh, but when you've set the bar high (The Nightmare Before Christmas) and inspired fellow animators to push the envelope further than it's ever gone before (Coraline, Paranorman), you cannot skate by on less than your best and hope fans will give you a pass. I found more joy in the film's little underdeveloped flourishes -- the near perfect recreation of Victor's lab from the live-action short; Mayor Burgermeister being lifted directly from Rankin-Bass' holiday classic Santa Claus is Comin' to Town; Mr. Rzykruski as a brilliant melding of Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi, and Walt Disney -- than the whole of the story itself. Sure, all of the beats from the original are in place, but it feels more emotionally shallow. We have little attachment to or care for Victor's parents, his fellow students are greedy unlikable sods, and the one intriguing character who could have raised the stakes, Elsa (Winona Ryder, Francis Ford Copolla's Dracula), is not given near enough to do.
The scene I love most lasts only the briefest of moments, but sums up my feelings for the film. Victor finds Sparky hiding behind his tombstone in the pet cemetery, and we instantly understand how frightened and ashamed he is for being brought back to life. He knows it's not right, but his love for Victor overpowers every other emotion he's feeling. I will forever be grateful for what Tim Burton has given us, even if he never delivers anything close to his best work again.
Presented in 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen, Disney offers up two fantastic transfers. The 3D version is considerably more depth-oriented than it is William Castle fourth wall breaking. Though New Holland is far more boring than many of the worlds Burton has given us, the final action sequence provides plenty to appreciate...even when heavy-handed in its cinematic homages (Frankenstein, The Mummy, Godzilla, Gamera, Gremlins). The 2D version is equally impressive for a world whose finest moments occur in perpetual darkness. The black and white image is sharp, highly detailed, and seamlessly fluid. From textures to lighting, you'll be hard pressed to spot any flaws. As for the audio, Disney once again proves to be the reigning champs of the DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio mix. A magnificent use of the soundfield with fantastic directional effects, a powerhouse LFE, clear dialogue, and a Danny Elfman score that (while less memorable than previous Burton collaborations) never overpowers the action.
Unfortunately, the bonus features are far less impressive. Inclusion of the original film is greatly appreciated, as is the adorable short "Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers." But a 23 minute making of featurette ("Bringing Frankenweenie to Life") and 5 min look at the models/props touring exhibit cannot compare with passion exhibited by the cast and crew of Paranorman in nearly an hour worth of insights. Plain White Tee's music video for "Pet Sematary" doesn't help matters either.
In the end, my expectations were too high and Burton's team delivered far less than their finest work. Like Victor, I find myself trying hard to appreciate Frankenweenie, a beloved friend who came back from the dead not quite right.
Guilty of being over-thought and undercooked.
Review content copyright © 2013 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 7.1 Master Audio (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* 2D Version
* Short Films
* Music Video
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site