Victor Frankenstein lives with his parents in the little suburban town New Holland and is something of an inventor and filmmaker, who loves to do little horror and monster movies with the aid of his beloved dog Sparky. One day, however, the enthusiastic Sparky dies in an unfortunate car accident and Victor is destitute - until he gets an idea from his new science teacher, who tells his class that dead tissue can be temporarily brought to life with electricity...
It's not often that a filmmakers gets really fired for a movie that he has made, but that was actually what had happened to a young Tim Burton in 1984. He was unhappily working for the Disney Studio as an animator at the time and after having produced a little animated short called Vincent and a live-action television adaptation of Hansel & Gretel with an all-japanese cast, he successfully got his employer to fund an half-hour short about a boy who revives his dead dog in the manner of Dr. Frankenstein. Disney was so shocked by the actually quite benign and very professionaly made Frankenweenie that Tim Burton was fired from the studio under the pretense of misappropriating funds. If the studio executives had wanted to destroy Burton's carrer, then they had made the exactly wrong choice, because their move had the exact opposite effect and gave the director's carrer a big push. Only five years and a couple of movies later, Tim Burton was still somewhat of an enfant terrible in Hollywood, but also one of the most-sought directors at the time.
In the end, Disney seems to have largely forgiven his youthful sins, even after another close encounter with The Nightmare Before Christmas, which was deemed to dark for the children-friendly studio and was only released under the Touchstone banner. Also, almost ten years after his firing, Disney as Touchstone chose to rescue his endeavour to immortalize the "worst director of all time", Ed Wood, after he was kicked out by Columbia Pictures. His relationship with Disney was further cemented with his version of Alice in Wonderland, which in spite of mixed reviews, became an enormous financial success in 2010. But even long before something altogether strange had happened - Disney decided to give Tim Burton the opportunity to revive the movie they fired him for almost thirty years ago.
The idea to make Frankenweenie as a feature-length stop-motion animated movie had actually been Tim Burton's idea in the first place, but with the limited possibilities available to him in 1984, he chose to make a live-action version instead. With the backing of Disney, the possibilities were endless, but Tim Burton would not have been Tim Burton if he had not used this opportunity wisely. While the first overtures and a couple abandoned scripts go back at least to 2005, only in 2009 Tim Burton had decided to give Frankenweenie to one of the writers he trusted most, John August. He had already worked on Big Fish, Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the director and knew to handle the very distinct style of the director very well.
Closely working with the original script written in 1984 by Leonard Ripps, August carefully expanded the story while retaining most of the original plot. Frankenweenie was, however, not made into a two-and-a-half hour epic, but just into a relatively short movie with barely triple the runtime of the original. A surprising amount of new characters and locations were also introduced to expand the relatively limited world of the original story, but the style and atmosphere were not only kept, but greatly enhanced. Along with the new plot also came a lot of new dialogue, fine-tuned to Tim Burtons sarcastic and macabre humour, making the new Frankenweenie even more talkative than its predecessor.
The story remains old-fashioned and still is an affectionate homage to the classic horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s - there was no attempt at modernisation at all, The expanded setting in the small town of New Holland is a delightful representation of 1950s suburbia and John August has even managed to sneak in some criticism of science education only being dull memorising instead of hands-on experimentation, which was already hinted at in the original. All in all, Frankenweenie's possibly problematic transformation into a feature-length script could not have been executed better.
Although the script was written in a way that it could have been filmed either as live-action or animation, Tim Burton had very early decided that in would be the latter when the stopmotion genre was resurrected in the 2000s. Digital animation would have been a possibility, but when Corpse Bride, Coraline and Fantastic Mr Fox, not even mentioning the works of Aardman Animation, turned out to be great accomplishments and at least partly financially successful, there was simply no reason not to make Frankenweenie as stop motion.
For Tim Burton, this also meant entrusting his movie in the hands of someone else, because the job of director on an animated movie is radically different than on a live-action production. Henry Selick, who had worked with Tim Burton on The Nightmare before Christmas, was rumoured to be attached to the project in the early stages, but his full-time involvement in Coraline and later his new project The Shadow King made working on Frankenweenie impossible.
Instead, Tim Burton assembled almost the same animation team he had worked with on Corpse Bride, this time led by animation director Trey Thomas. He was a stop-motion veteran of not only Nightmare before Christmas and Corpse Bride, but also Coraline and Fantastic Mr Fox and had also worked on digital animation projects like Shrek 2 and Madagascar for Dreamworks, bringing a lot of experience to the large team of animators, although he did not share a director's credit with Tim Burton. The director himself was, of course, largely responsible for the creative process of the movie and was heavily involved in all stages of the production, but with filming both Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows during the creation of Frankenweenie, the daily hands-on work was the responsibility of Trey Thomas.
Like many other recent stop-motion productions, Frankenweenie was made in England at the Three Mills Studios in the outskirts of London, mainly because the majority of professional stop-motion animators are based in the UK. Disney had lobbied to produce the movie in Hollywood, but Tim Burton, who also lives in England with his family, had vetoed against it for practical and budget reasons. The production had begun in summer 2010 with a planned release date at the end of 2011 - a relatively swift schedule, which was actually later changed to first spring and then autumn 2012 due to some internal reshuffling at Disney, allowing some more work to be done on Frankenweenie.
For the very unique look of Frankenweenie, Tim Burton turned to the one creative mind with whom he had already worked on the original: producer and production designer Rich Heinrichs, one of his oldest and most trusted collaborators. The design of the movie separates itself into a detailed recreation of a typical urban American settlement of the 1950, most likely in California, where Tim Burton himself grew up. The scenery does have shades of The Nightmare before Christmas and Corpse Bride especially in the carnival scenes, but otherwise it delights in showing the quite normal and ordinary in a way that makes it even stranger to look at. The closest visual companion to Frankenweenie in Tim Burtons oeuvre is actually Ed Wood, mainly because it also takes place in roughly the same time period at similar locations.
The character designs seem to be lifted mainly from Corpse Bride, but the distinct look of the triangular faces with the almost saucer-shaped eyes actually go back to Tim Burton's first stop-motion short Vincent, whose lone protagonist actually looks quite similar to the reimagined Victor Frankenstein. The puppets were manufactured and partly designed by the british company Mackinnon & Saunders, who had worked on almost all major British-produced stop-motion films including Tim Burton's Corpse Bride and even long before, Mars Attacks. With a whole host of different characters not only including humans, but also several animals including the titular dog Sparky, the figures in Frankenweenie exhibit a wonderful variety of different looks, which in spite of the same basic design all look wonderfully original and deliciously weird without being a completely frightening horror show.
The cinematography by Peter Sorg, who also previously worked on Corpse Bride and Coraline, is surprisingly low-key and takes a decidedly 1950s approach. The movie was, of course, shot with digital still cameras made by Canon, a technique which had been perfected in the mid-2000s in favour of shooting on 35mm film or even video, allowing the animators more freedom and making their work much easier than before. For Frankenweenie, this did not mean an artifical or digital look at all, because Tim Burton had gotten his wish to make the movie in black-and-white despite some resistance of Disney. In the end the studio partly won by insisting that Frankenweenie had to be converted to 3D in post-production, although it had been shot only in 2D.
As a peace offering Tim Burton even elected to make a little reference to 3D movies at the beginning of the story.
Casting the voices was not a huge problem for Tim Burton, who mainly called up some old friends for his movie. The only role which really had to be selected carefully was Victor Frankenstein himself, the owner of the eponymous dog and Tim Burton's first youthful protagonist since the original Frankenweenie. After a lengthy selection process, Burton finally decided on Charlie Tahan, who had been an actor since he was ten years old, but in spite of his experience, was able to convince the filmmakers with his natural and unforced delivery. Tahan is surprisingly inconspicuous in his role and simply sounds like an enthusiastic, but slightly moody 10 or 12 year old boy, who perfectly carries most of the movie with the majority of the dialogue.
In a somewhat surprising move from Tim Burton, the role of Victor's father was not given to Johnny Depp, but to Martin Short, who had met the director on Mars Attacks, but had not appeared in his movies since. The comedian is more known for his standup work and his hyperactive and nervous characters, but in Frankenweenie sounds remarkably calm and is refreshingly unrecognizable as the utterly normal, well-meaning, but slightly clueless father. Victor's equally normal mother has about the same screen time and like his father is also voiced inconspicuously by Catherine O'Hara, another old friend of the director, who appeared in both Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Both bring Victor's parents to life in a wonderfully low-key, but entirely honest way. Both also provide the voices for a couple of other characters, notably the unnamed "Weird Girl" and the city's mayor.
The remaining cast of characters is unusually small, only consisting of Victor's schoolfriends and a very special teacher. Winona Ryder is, of course, another old friend of Tim Burton, but here she has only a very minor role, almost an cameo, as Elsa van Helsing, the terrified niece of the mayor and owner of another dog called Persephone Sparky befriends. Victor's other school friends are a wonderful jumble of weird characters voiced by Atticus Shaffer as the Igor-like Edgar, Robert Capron as Bob, the heavyweight and James Hiroyuki Liao as Toshiaki, the japanese genius and leader of the troupe - all younger actors close to the age of their characters, who nevertheless are perfect in their roles.
The most wonderful addition to the cast is however the misunderstood school science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who was already present in the original short as a previous incarnation. For the movie, Tim Burton transformed him into an unmistakable homage of his friend and idol Vincent Price, who had been the subject and narrator of his first animated short film Vincent. While Price had sadly died in 1993, Tim Burton nevertheless decided to honour the actor with an appearance in Frankenweenie - with the help of another legendary actor, Martin Landau, who had already magnificently portrayed Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood and also later appeared in Sleepy Hollow. His approach was decidedly more Lugosi than Price, but it is safe to assume that Vincent Price himself would have loved this character very much.
Musically, Tim Burton had, of course, only one choice with Frankenweenie: to go to his old friend Danny Elfman and let him work his magic on the movie. Actually, Elfman deviates so much from his usual recipe of heavy, brass-laden rhythms that Frankenweenie sounds less than a classic Burton soundtrack than something completely new and fresh. For the most part, Elfman's compositions are unusually playful and melodious, using mostly strings, woodwinds and even some piano and harp.
The scarier scenes, however, needed something stronger and the composer paid homage to the tunes of the old classic horror movies without completely falling back into his old routines - even the grand finale owes more to the 1930s and 1940s than Elfman's usual modern style. No pop songs are used in the movie - unfortunately the closing credits begin with Strange Love, a completely failed, inane attempt to emulate a 50s pop song, which destroys the mood of the movie completely before the viewers, who have not yet fled, are treated to a medley of Danny Elfman's music.
It could have been a self-indulgent, overzealous mess, but instead Tim Burton did it once again with Frankenweenie and made his already wonderful short film into an even better stop-motion movie. With the help of a great team of animators led by Trey Thomas, a brilliantly adapted script by John August and a group of brilliant voice actors, the filmmaker was finally able to complete the full circle and make the one movie which had always eluded him before. Like Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie was just a pet project of the filmmaker, who was lucky that Disney had agreed to fund it. Made for less than $40 million, it was not a big risk for the studio and by today's standards was almost petty cash.
Predictably, the investment did not really pay off for Disney despite a surprisingly big marketing campaign and overwhelmingly good reviews. Maybe it was the twice delayed premiere, desperately wanting to take advantage of the Halloween season, or the unwise fact that Disney once again tried to market the movie as children's entertainment even with its PG rating, but in the USA Frankenweenie was not even able to bring its low budget in, taking only $35 million at the boxoffice and only a meager $46 million overseas. But Frankenweenie was never designed to be a big blockbuster even if Disney had intended it to be - it is only a wonderful personal homage from Tim Burton to the movies with which he grew up and influenced him the most.
After the October premiere in 2012, Frankenweenie had arrived on the home video market surprisingly quickly beginning in January and February 2013 in America and England, while the German release was as usual delayed until May. The movie was released in at least three different flavours - a standard DVD, a normal Blu-Ray and a 3D Blu-Ray. Disney had not invested much into the special features, just a barely half-hour long making-of, a short featurette about the traveling exhibition of the movie and a music video were included in addition to the original short film, which unfortunately was not newly transferred in high-definition. Disney also dropped the ball on the DVD releases of the movie, including only the exhibit featurette and the music video.
This review is about the UK DVD release of Frankenweenie, which I finally opted to get after the initial hefty prices had fallen to more tolerable levels. While the technical quality is absolutely top-notch, the bonus materials are barely worth mentioning, which is especially disappointing because there would have been room for all of them even on only a single disc. This does not mean that the DVD is not worth buying to see the movie, but considering its legacy, Disney could at least have included the extras from the Blu-Ray. The original Frankenweenie short is, however, available on all DVDs of The Nightmare Before Christmas, including the latest re-releases.