(2012) *** Pg
87 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Director: Tim Burton. Cast: Winona Ryder, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau.

/content/films/4422/1.jpgBy reaching back into his own past and movie history, the recently fumbly Tim Burton has gotten a grip with Frankenweenie. Expanded by screenwriter John August from Burton’s 1984 live-action short of the same name, the stop-motion-animated Frankenweenie finds the filmmaker in fine fettle.

Like its predecessors (Burton’s short and the 1931 Frankenstein), Frankenweenie plays out in black-and-white. Bold, man, bold. For Disney to put out a 2012 animated 3D family picture in black-and-white can only mean one thing: the megahit Alice in Wonderland wasn’t a complete waste, after all—it allowed studio bosses to trust their artist-in-residence enough to look past the chiaroscuro and see green.

The story concerns young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), reimagined as a child of suburbia. New Holland is a town that’s happily set in its ways, from local holiday “Dutch Day” to traditional lessons in the schoolroom. Give them that old-time religion; it’s good enough for them. As such, these ’burbs are no place for Victor, a curious child who takes to his science class in a spirit of experimentation. Science comes in handy when Victor’s beloved dog Sparky dies, necessitating electrical resuscitation.

Flipping the cautionary themes of Mary Shelley’s original source material, Frankenweenie plays out as a primarily pro-science parable. August establishes a plain conflict between the self-servingly narrow-minded status quo and the socially progressive attitude represented by Victor’s heavily accented science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (a terrific Martin Landau), who bluntly addresses the school’s parents as “ignorant” and “stupid,” and tells Victor, “They like what science gives them, but not the questions, no.”

Rzykruski stands as the exception to the film’s rule, expressed by Victor’s dad, that “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.” Obviously, that’s a message kids are ready to hear. Parents shouldn’t take offense (Victor’s parents are as loving as they are clueless); if anything, it’s cat lovers that will be miffed, given the sinister weirdness of local feline Mr. Whiskers (three words: psychic cat scat).

Trappings like Mr. Whiskers help August and Burton to fill out the story, which winds up playing on the science-fiction horrors of ‘50s cinema when Victor’s peers step up the Science Fair competition. No points for the character that’s a squinting Communist Chinese stereotype, but Burton and his voice cast (including Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara in multiple delightful roles) justifiably have a ball bringing new life to the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Boris Karloff.

Along with the 3D goose, Frankenweenie boasts Burton’s distinctive design work, and creatively eager stop-motion work (check out the streaking raindrop shadows, evocative of Conrad Hall’s cinematography for In Cold Blood). Of course Frankenweenie offers eye candy, a celebration of cinema, and a heartfelt, central “boy and his dog” story, but it’s a pleasant surprise that the picture also goes out of its way to encourage free-thinking square pegs to avoid gaping round holes.

[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]

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Aspect ratios: 1.8541

Number of discs: 4

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1

Street date: 1/8/2013

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Disney gives its latest animation title to hit home video the studio's customary deluxe treatment in a Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy special edition combo pack. As is to be expected, tech specs are outstanding, with a state-of-the-art 3D presentation (a special novelty in black and white). 3D can be very impressive with CGI animation, but there's something special about how the carefully lit contours of stop-motion animation pop in 3D, and it all feels a bit crisper in chiaroscuro. The 3D transfer is as good as they get, technically proficient, with no discernable digital artifacts and every pixel in its place. The 2D transfer also impresses; though shy a dimension, there's still a sense of depth, and the contrast and sharpness are every bit as well calibrated.

The audio presentation likewise couldn't be better. The top-tier DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround mix expertly brings home the theatrical experience. Ambience delicately and consistently creates an immersive effect. The sound design revs up plenty of oomph in the action sequences, and music proves consistently full-bodied, while never once sacrificing clarity of dialogue. Most impressively, the rear channels stay lively, more so than the average home-video title.

The all-new short-short "Captain Sparky vs The Flying Saucers" (2:26, HD), starring Victor and Sparky in stop-motion animation akin to the feature, is a nice bonus.

"Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life" (23:06, HD) is the disc's only making-of feature, but it's a good one, concise and incisive in recounting the process of taking the film from ideas to stop-motion execution. Interviewees include director Tim Burton, executive producer Don Hahn, producer Allison Abbate, and animation director Trey Thomas, among others.

"Frankenweenie Touring Exhibit" (4:36, HD) notes for posterity the collection of pre-production and production materials (including design art and models) that made its way around the country during the promotion of the film.

Burton's original 1984 live-action short film "Frankenweenie" (30:03, SD)—produced for Disney—not surprisingly appears here, and though it's by far the most important bonus feature in the set, it's the only one not given the HD treatment. Curses! The expense would have been a wise archival investment for Disney. Oh well.

Rounding out the extras is the "'Pet Sematary' Music Video" (3:54, HD) performed by the Plain White T's.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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