Maybe Tim Burton should stick to stop-motion animation from now on. Some of his most creative films, his biggest qualitative successes, haven’t been in live-action or overdosed on computer graphics. You may think of him as the director of Batman or of Beetlejuice, but Burton’s impact is most powerfully felt in the 1993 Disney film The Nightmare Before Christmas. (Being fair, Burton produced the film and came up with the concept. Henry Selick directed it, although its influence is clear.) He’s gone back to the stop-motion well a few times since, and his most recent film is an expansion on one of his earliest ideas. Another Disney release, it’s Frankenweenie, a story of a boy and his beloved undead dog, Sparky. The bad news is that the film did a bit of a belly-flop at the box office last October. The good news is that you can now rent or buy it on Blu-ray and realize, if a bit too late, that you missed out on a charming if intense twisted modern fairy tale.
The film, featuring the voices of Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder, and Martin Landau, is a typically dark yet sweet story of Victor Frankenstein, an introverted little boy who loves his terrier Sparky. Sadly, one day, Sparky is run over by a car; however, instead of letting go, Victor is inspired by his new science teacher to try an experiment on Sparky in the hopes of bringing him back to life. The trial by lightning works quite well, as Sparky’s soon back on his paws and more energetic than ever. Unfortunately, Victor can’t keep his dead dog’s revival a secret for too long, as other kids, obsessed with winning a science fair (almost as fantastical a notion as the undead rising from the grave), try the same experiment Victor did, with horrifying results. Paying plenty of homage to 50s-era horror films, Frankenweenie was my favorite animated film of 2012. (It wasn’t on my top 15 of 2012, but that almost says more about the animated films of 2012 than anything else.) One hopes the Blu-ray release for Frankenweenie will get it some new fans, even if a kiddie version of a horror movie being released in January may seem a bit puzzling.
On the one hand, the meager pickings among the supplements on the Frankenweenie Blu-ray isn’t that shocking. Since the film did so poorly, Disney wouldn’t be wrong to assume demand may not be high. However, it’s rare for home media features to be prepared after a film’s initial release; as such, it’s a bit disappointing that there aren’t any commentaries or even the hint of deleted scenes or storyboards on the 4-disc package. (That, also, is why this film having only five special features is a letdown. The 4-disc combo, including a Blu-ray 3D disc, a Blu-ray disc, a DVD, and a digital copy, feels big but really isn’t.) What we do have are a few cute but inessential features, including an all-new short film called Captain Sparky vs. The Flying Saucers, spinning off from the opening of the film proper, and a quick visit to a touring exhibit for the film that went from Comic-Con in San Diego to Japan to, for a good month or so, Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort. Then, there are the forgettable supplements, like a Plain White T’s music video and the original half-hour, live-action Frankenweenie short starring Daniel Stern and Shelley Duvall. (Before you ask why the latter should be considered inessential, consider this: the Nightmare Before Christmas Blu-ray, 3D or 2D, also has the short as a supplement.)
Perhaps the most compelling special feature is a 23-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Frankenweenie, called “Miniatures in Motion: Bringing Frankenweenie to Life.” Walking the audience through not only why Burton—who is strangely a supporting player in a featurette focused on his creation—chose to expand his 1984 short into a feature film, but of how stop-motion technology has improved over the last two decades to help make this film even more technologically advanced than The Nightmare Before Christmas (even if the process of creating stop-motion animation is ridiculously painstaking). In short, fans of Frankenweenie may not be many, but will be happy enough with Disney’s Blu-ray release, even if it would—yes, that old broken record again—be nice for them to overload their Blu-rays with special features. Many of you, however, probably didn’t see Frankenweenie in theaters. Now, you can watch it in the comfort of your own home, and you should. Tim Burton’s career is up and down, but Frankenweenie is his most enjoyable and entertaining film since, maybe, Ed Wood.