It’s understandable that fans of professionally quirky director Tim Burton have lost faith in recent years.
After all, Burton’s underwhelming 2012 release “Dark Shadows” marked the latest artistically sluggish film from the mind behind “Beetlejuice,” “Batman” and “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
So the arrival of “Frankenweenie,” out today on Blu-ray and DVD, couldn’t be a happier discovery. The film finds Burton not only revisiting the same stop-motion wizardry he tapped in “Corpse Bride” but lets him bring one of his first forays into filmmaking to life.
“Frankenweenie,” inspired by a live-action short Burton shot in the 1980s, follows a lonely lad named Victor mourning the sudden loss of his dog, Sparky. When Victor’s wizened science teacher (Martin Landau) tells the class how electrical currents make us all tick, the lad decides to reanimate Sparky with the help of a home laboratory and some stormy weather.
Faster than you can say, “it’s alive … it’s alive!” Sparky is back and ready to assume his “boy’s best friend” status. Can Victor keep the dog’s return a secret from both his parents and nosy neighborhood kids who might want to recreate Victor’s experiment?
“Frankenweenie” may be technically aimed at children, but its slightly askew character portraits and horror movie allusions are catnip for older viewers. Vocal performances are giddily perfect across the board, include fine contributions from Martin Short and young Charlie Tahan as poor, confused Victor.
The black and white palette works wonders with the material, as does the not so subtle homage to Peter Lorre. The film’s waning moments get a bit frantic, a tic too many modern animated features display. “Frankenweenie’s” resuscitated heart always beats as it should, a thump-thump sound that marries a child’s sense of wonder with an adult’s responsibility to tell a rollicking good yarn.
The film does lurch into a potential minefield midway through when Victor’s teacher starts a rant on the public’s refusal to embrace science as he sees it. The sequence teeters on the edge of flyover country bashing, but the narrative quickly reverts back to the story of a boy and his electrified dog.
The Blu-ray extras include a smart, affectionate look at the stop-motion animation process complete with a visit to the “puppet hospital” where the miniatures are stitched up to film another day. We also get the original short “Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers” offering more of Burton’s affectionate shout outs to any child who ever dreamed of being a filmmaker one day.
Best of all, the package features the original “Frankenweenie” live-action short starring Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall.
Bonus: Here’s part of an interview Burton did as part of home video’s promotional push. Sure, it’s meant to sell a few units, but the director’s candid answers are worth a read …
Frankenweenie is described as a semi-autobiographical project. Does this mean the younger characters in the movie are based on your classmates from school?
The kids in the movie are based on various real people, but they are also based on horror icons like Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and dubbed Japanese movies that I remember seeing as a child. They relate to movies and actors, as well as real people that I remember from my childhood.
The main character, Victor, loves to make movies. Is that what you used to do when you were a child?
Yes, I did. A lot of kids did, actually. It was a fun thing to do, and it became a very easy way to get good grades.
What movies did you make?
Sometimes I’d make stop-motion movies and sometimes I would make live-action movies. Sometimes I filmed drawings, or I did a mixture of things.
Were you also into science projects, just like Victor in Frankenweenie?
I liked the idea of making things and creating things, but I guess I always treated science and art as quite similar thematically. I feel like the idea of science and short filmmaking, and doing science fairs and projects like building volcanoes, is all in a similar vein.
When it comes to Frankenweenie, why did you decide to create the movie in black and white?
I find black and white very beautiful. It gives a real sense of emotion. I was really excited about seeing this in black and white because there’s a depth in the black and white, which I love. I was very happy that the studio went along with the idea. If they wanted it in color, I wouldn’t have done it.
Do you dream in black and white or in color?
I’ve had black and white dreams, as well as color dreams. I’ve had both. I love black and white; I always have. I think there’s a real beauty to it. It’s not right for every project, but when you take the color out of something, sometimes you start looking at other things like textures andcharacters. It does something really interesting.
Frankenweenie is an homage to black and white monster movies from the past. Did those movies scare you as a child?
I think I was more scared by real life rather than movies. I could watch a monster movie fine, but I’d be terrified if I had one of my relatives come over. I was never scared by monster movies because I felt like the monsters were always the most emotional characters – at least in those old films. I guess it’s slightly different these days.