Like “Frankenhookers,” the title alone is enough to make you giggle.
That’s giggle, mind you. Mel Brooks may have squeezed laughs out of audiences with “Young Frankenstein,” but in “Frankenweenie” Tim Burton gives us a mildly comedic younger version of the mad scientist—so young, in fact, that his reanimation experiment could be a contender for his elementary school science fair. There’s humor here, but like most of Burton’s film’s it’s on the subtle side and outweighed by pathos.
More than a dozen films have riffed on the Frankenstein story, proof positive that Mary Shelley’s masterwork, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818), can be revived again and again in permutations that run from silly to supercilious (Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 film comes to mind, for the latter). Then too, countless other films like “The Mosquito Coast” have drawn their theme’s from Shelley’s cautionary tale: Don’t try to play God.
When Burton first cranked out a short feature by the same name back in 1984 while he was working for Disney, the brass put the kibosh on the project because they thought that a boy’s beloved dog dying and being reanimated was just a bit too scary for children. As a Baby Boomer, of course, I’m thinking, How is this so different from “Old Yeller”? At least this young dog owner tries to bring his dog back to life, rather than shooting him to put him out of his misery!
Thirty years later the world is a scarier place and Burton’s film isn’t as frightening or traumatizing as it once seemed. Now it’s even okay for release on 3D, which vivifies everything. And really, it’s not as gory or traumatizing as it could have been. The “monster” doesn’t run amok and kill, and while things do get crazy and destructive, it’s not the dog who’s responsible. So the emotional center is wrapped tightly and securely.
Thirty years later it’s not the scariness that works against the film—it’s the slow pacing that’s the killer for children, and a third act that will have the more logical-minded among them wondering: How is it possible for young Frankenstein’s dog, Sparky, to be reanimated just fine, but a goldfish reanimated by the same method turns invisible then disappears altogether, and subsequent reanimations produce mutated Japanese-style monsters that, as in a Mel Brooks movie, look as if they crossed over from one studio backlot set to another?
Ironically, the problematic third act is also the most action-filled, so it will hold youngsters’ attention better than the plodding first act, or a second act that finally starts to build momentum.
The cure for viewer impatience or insistence on logic is simple: Get lost in the allusions. First read Shelley’s novel or watch the classic 1931 Universal “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff as The Monster. Burton has a lot of fun embedding allusions to Shelley’s novel and the best-known and most beloved film version—among them a scene where, instead of a small girl, the “monster” dog startles Frankenstein’s mother and is in turn scared by her screams, so much so that he runs into a mirror, shatters it, and, seeing a bizarre kaleidoscopic version of himself, becomes terrified. Look for more obvious allusions as well, like Shelley’s tombstone in a graveyard scene. Igor, the stock hunchbacked assistant, turns up as Edgar (“E”) Gore (Atticus Shaffer), the classmate who blackmails young Victor (Charlie Tahan) into sharing his secret, then accidentally spills the beans to others, which precipitates that third-act mayhem. Other voices are provided by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short (as Victor’s parents), Martin Landau (as the droll, hilariously drawn science teacher), and Winona Ryder (Elsa Van Helsing).
If there were a stop-motion animation convention, it would be easy to arrange: Burton could pick up the phone and dial Aardman Animations and ask what day they’re free. Burton injects new life into the medium by inserting things like a real black-and-white movie watched on television by his cartoonish family, and incorporating real backgrounds and objects. That hybrid makes for interesting visuals, and Disney-Pixar fans will also notice a strange similarity between the mayor and Mr. Waternoose from “Monsters, Inc.” Then too, there's Burton's self-reflexive nod to 3D in which the Frankenstein family dons those glasses to watch Victor's black-and-white movie made in 3D. It’s this sort of treasure hunting and some excellent stop-motion animation that make up for the film’s deficiencies.
Burton and Disney might seem like an odd couple, but they have at least two things in common: an attention to detail, and an insistence on superior production values. Both are in evidence here, whether you watch “Frankenweenie” is 3D or standard Blu-ray. Those who like to watch 3D images break the plane of the TV screen won’t be disappointed (as there are at least a handful of times when viewers can gleefully feel startled), nor will those who expect 3-Dimension to add interesting depth throughout. This is the very first black-and-white film to be given the 3D treatment, and it’s highly successful. Contrast levels are right-on, and the level of detail showcases even the slightest wrinkles in characters’ otherwise sculpted faces and foreheads. I saw no problems whatsoever with the MVC/MPEG-4 transfer.
3D can mesmerize when the plot sags, but even the standard Blu-ray looks astoundingly rich and textured, with, again, perfect contrast levels. As with the 3D version, I saw no evidence of compression artifacts as a result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. In both cases, the film is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is also impressive. The 7.1 DTS MA soundtrack infuses the room with believable directionality and a tonality that’s nice and clear and full-bodied, involving all of the speakers regularly rather than occasionally, as is too often the case. The subwoofer really works overtime during that hectic third act. Additional audio options are English DVS 2.0, French DTS-HDR 7.1, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
This combo pack includes the feature film on 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital Copy, which gives you four ways to watch.
The 3D version offers no bonus features, while the DVD offers only “Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit” (a five-minute sketch and artwork show) and a “Pet Semetary” music video from Plain White T’s.
It’s the Blu-ray that offers those two plus a little bit more. Fans will enjoy Burton’s original 30-minute short “Frankenweenie,” while “Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life” (23 min.) is a nice behind-the-scenes feature that really goes into some detail about the models, puppets, and miniature sets that were used. Other elements of filming and production are also covered, including casting and the voice performances.
Other than that, there’s just “Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers,” an animated short feature that’s being touted on the packaging as a key bonus feature, though it’s only two minutes long. What can I say other than it’s amusing, but brief?
“Frankenweenie” isn’t Burton’s best work, but it’s still a solid outing for the strange, death-obsessed director. And the score? You don’t even have to see Danny Elfman’s name roll in the end credits, his style is so readily identifiable.