Frankenweenie on Blu-ray disc

Disney could have titled this "A Boy and his Dead Dog" and it would have made as much sense as "Frankenweenie," and it would have actually been a bit more descriptive of this self indulgent Tim Burton project. They never asked us, of course, and so we have Frankenweenie.

The movie is an extended and extensively padded version of Tim Burton's 1984 short by the same name, a featurette that ran about half an hour and was shot with live action, as opposed to the stop motion animation of this new Disney Blu-ray release.

The story follows young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), whose name alone should tell you all you need to know. But rather than being a mad scientist, this Victor Frankenstein is a typical (well, perhaps not that typical) suburban kid whose beloved dog Sparky is run over by a car and killed. Victor, who also just happens to be a science whiz working on a project for school, gets the inspiration to reanimate Sparky in exactly the same way the eponymous Universal Studios horror classic character played God by stitching together dead body parts and bringing them to life by using a horrendous thunderstorm to give it the spark of animation.

Then, of course, all heck breaks loose. In this case, Sparky isn't a monster, but his stitched appearance – and the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows he's dead – causes a certain amount of angst among the townsfolk. Making things worse are Victor's peers, who use his technique to bring back to life a variety of dead animals – with varying results that include a nifty "Godzilla tribute-like" turtle.

Naturally, the recently dead critters run amok, leading to a real torches and pitchforks moment when the townsfolk rise up and try to put down the dead animal revolution. Or something like that.

Meanwhile, Victor is busy trying to find Sparky, who ran away when things were getting weird, as well as try to convince folks that, despite his looks and his undead situation, he's still just the family dog.

It's an interesting flick and, being suckers for stop motion animation, we couldn't wait to try it. Disney's review Blu-ray included both 3D and 2D versions, plus a DVD and digital copy. We tried watching it in 3D, but suffered what appeared to be severe handshaking issues between the disc and the video projector, so fell back on the 2D version (which is what we watch usually anyway). This isn't necessarily an indictment of the 3D Blu-ray, but it was strange to see considering we haven't had such issues with other 3D BD's. Murphy's Law lives!

There are plenty of neat homages to classic horror films, from the film's black and white look to basic plot itself (which is merely a kind of Burton/Disneyized "Frankenstein"), and fans of the genre will be kept busy noting them. But the movie seems overlong – we actually thought the original short was better because it contained everything that was important to the feature, but in a kind of visual storytelling shorthand.

And the work it took to make this film shines through, including beautifully detailed and rendered stop motion characters and sets. It also definitely comes across as a Tim Burton flick, for better or for worse. We happen to think it's "for better," though this is by no means one of our favorite Burton titles.

Burton had apparently always wanted Frankenweenie to be a full length stop motion feature, but back then he didn't have the clout, which apparently led to the 30 minute, live action short (which featured Barrett Oliver, Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern, among others).   

It comes across as a labor of love, a vanity-type project from a gifted – if not a tad twisted – filmmaker. Ditto for the full length version, except that there isn't enough meat to keep everything going for the full 87 minutes. 

In the grand scheme of modern stop motion films, especially ones with the Disney and/or Tim Burton name connected to them, we think immediately of the fantastic masterpiece that is "The Nightmare Before Christmas." It was a movie/Blu-ray that was imaginative, musical, funny, and creepy. But it's also a fantastic home theater experience, with outstanding audio and video quality that's worth seeing just because it's so great.

Frankenweenie is not in that league, unfortunately. Firstly, its black and white seems to work against it as far as outstanding picture quality is concerned. Oh, the 1080/24p (1:85:1 aspect ratio) picture is sharp and bright and crisp and clean, but it also looks more than a tad "flat" in that it doesn't have that "pop off the screen" look of the best Blu-rays.

This may be deliberate, since the film obviously is also a tribute to the old black and white horror classics of old, but it's still a shame.

The audio, however, is definitely up to snuff. It's presented in 7.1 DTS HD Master Audio (we listened in 5.1) and is engrossing, enveloping, and dynamic. The low frequency channel gets a decent workout here, and the overall fidelity is first rate. Dialogue comes through loudly and clearly, sound effects and Danny Elfman's music (which is good, but not "Nightmare" quality – and Frankenweenie isn't a musical) are all used very well.

The extras are quite interesting, too, especially the original Frankenweenie short and the quite extensive "Making of" feature "Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to life," the latter of which offers a fascinating look into the stop motion process and a lot of other stuff involved in bringing a tale such as this to the big screen. It's quite delightful for fans of the genre.

You also get an "original short" called "Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers," supposedly one of the short films Victor made before Sparky got that run down feeling. It's cute.

There's also a music video ("Pet Sematary" by Plain White T's) and a short piece on the Frankenweenie touring exhibit.

In all, we're glad we saw Frankenweenie – if only because it gave us another stop motion fix in this age of CG – but it certainly isn't going to replace "Nightmare before Christmas" as our modern Disney stop motion movie of choice. That's a tough bar to get over, admittedly, but we keep hoping – and we look forward to someone actually surpassing that masterpiece.

But in the meantime, it's a pretty interesting hour and a half in the home theater, as long as you don't go in looking for the stuff that dreams are made of.

Or even nightmares.

Frankenweenie, from Walt Disney Home Entertainment
87 min. 1080/24p, 1:85:1, DTS HD Master Audio 7.1
written by John August, directed by Tim Burton

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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