In America, Tim Burton's second decade of work has undermined all of the credibility and goodwill that he built up over his first decade of filmmaking. Sleepy Hollow ($206,071,502 worldwide) was the beginning of the slip and Planet of the Apes ($362,211,740 worldwide) served as a cudgel for audiences to beat away the challenging and unnerving elements of his work. Big Fish ($122,919,055 worldwide) was a noble effort, but was too little, too late, especially given how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($474,968,763 worldwide) abused his audience's memories.
Both Corpse Bride ($117,195,061) and Sweeney Todd ($152,523,1640) were solid returns to form, but both lacked that appeal that made his earlier works accessible, and then Alice in Wonderland ($1,024,300 worldwide) and Dark Shadows ($239,127,149 worldwide) drove what fans that were still holding on into despair.
I'm including all of the worldwide grosses to prove a point. Although the critical response has been shaky, financially, Burton has consistently made money for the studios. But bringing in the money around the world is a shallow satisfaction given an artist of Burton's temperament. So it should come as no surprise that Burton has gone back to the well with his latest work, Frankenweenie; revisiting his first professional work in a way that expands upon, and hopefully recaptures, the affections that his fans have for that seminal work.
In doing so, he's produced one of his most effective works in years, but also his biggest financial failure in recent memory, bringing in only $66,618,954 worldwide. That's not quite double his production budget.
Well, speaking as a lapsed fan, Frankenweenie is everything I want from a Tim Burton production.
The story itself is clever and moving, recapturing that traditional Burton feel for the underdog (no pun intended) whose strangeness comes into conflict with societal norms. This ties back directly to the weird/normal dialectic that made films like Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood work so well.
If you're familiar at all with the original short, Frankenweenie, then you know that this is about an isolated and lonely child, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who brings his best friend, his dog Sparky, back from the dead. But where the original short focuses on that event alone, the feature-length version has to bulk up the storyline with more conflict and drama.
Luckily, Burton doesn't go for the cliché romantic angle, although with Winona Ryder playing the neighbour, Elsa Van Helsing, it could have been a very easy angle to take. Instead, Elsa plays a minor role with most of the storytelling focus staying centred on a boy and his dog.
To add dramatic flair, Burton instead shifts his attention to the Science Fair. Doing so allows for a faint touch of social criticism (the students' families are described by the creepy science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) as liking what "science gives them, but not the questions science asks" and being "afraid of science like a dog is afraid of thunder or balloons!"), and provides an imaginative way of building to an acceptable climactic threat as Victor's rivals misuse his discovery, creating a disturbing Bat-Cat, a giant turtle named Shelly, and a swarm of gremlin-like Sea Monkeys.
The climax of the film sticks fairly close to the original short, with Sparky rescuing Victor from a burning windmill and the townsfolk who were demanding Sparky's destruction coming together to save his life. It's all very cute and emotionally satisfying, while avoiding any kind of serious statements about anything whatsoever.
But that's never been a Tim Burton kind of thing, with the main societal theme being addressed here summed up with "Sometimes adults don't know what they're talking about."
And there's nothing wrong with that.
As far as the technical specs go, I'm unable to adequately discuss the 3-D elements, but in 2-D, the film is brilliant and practically flawless. The AVC-encoded image is crisp and clear with impressive depth of field. Shadows are solid blacks and the filmmakers' use of light and shadow allows for impressive textures and crystal clear action.
There is a fantastic DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track that allows for clear dialogue that is never lost in the music or chaotic action on-screen. This is a dynamic and impressive piece of audio work that only helps to reinforce and enhance the entire viewing experience.
While Frankenweenie isn't the strongest work Burton has ever done, it's the strongest he's done in recent memory, and the sheer brilliance of the detail work that went into crafting the world of Frankenweenie is so impressive that I'm willing to overlook a slight lack of emotional resonance. Especially when such great effort has been put into bringing Sparky to life. The heart and soul of this film is Sparky and his relationship to Victor, and that's what really works best overall.
Original Short: Capt. Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers (HD, 2.30) – Extremely cute, extremely short bit of fluff as Victor and Sparky enjoy one of their home movies. Very clever use of stop-motion animation "by" the stop-motion characters, directed by Mark Waring and written by Derek Frey, with music by Danny Elfman.
Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life (HD, 23 min.) – In-depth documentary short that takes a look at every aspect of the production, from design, to puppet and set construction, to the puppet "hospital" and details of working in black and white. It really drives home just how amazing the entire process was putting Frankenweenie together. There were 400 puppets, 30 animators, and good progress was completing two minutes of film per week. Even if you don't care for the film itself, you've gotta give props for all the work that went into the production.
Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit (HD, 5 min.) – Filmed at the 2012 ComiCon, this short extra just takes a look at the Touring Exhibit of puppets and set details from the film. Vaguely interesting, but not sure it really brings anything interesting to the package.
Original Live-Action Frankenweenie Short (HD, 30 min.) – Many fans of Tim Burton will be familiar with this already, but it's nice to have it included here in a pristine format. According to some sources, this is Burton's first live-action work for Disney (IMDB disagrees), made in 1984, and it is a microcosm of Burton's entire career.
The only thing missing is Johnny Depp.
There are lovely little tributes to James Whales' 1931 classic Frankenstein, culminating in a confrontation between angry "villagers" bearing flashlights at a miniature golf course windmill. As in Frankenstein, the windmill goes up in flames, but Burton tacks on a happy ending as the townsfolk learn to love the heroic re-animated dog, Sparky.
Honestly, this and the "making of" documentary are enjoyable enough to justify adding the disc to your collection. Especially given the hit or miss nature of Tim Burton's recent work.
Plain White T's "Pet Semetary" Music Video (HD, 4 min.) – Flavorless remake of the Ramones' "classic" movie song. It's a stylishly black and white video with nice use of clips from the film. If you like the song, you probably won't be too offended by the remake. It was never The Ramones' best song anyway, so whatevs.
Frankenweenie will be available on Blu-ray and DVD on January 8, 2013.