Directed by: Tim Burton
Written by: John August (screenplay), Tim Burton and Leonard Ripps (story)
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau, Atticus Shaffer
Love him or hate him, I think most people would agree that Tim Burton has not been at the top of his game over the past decade. Sure, Alice in Wonderland earned over a billion dollars worldwide, but it was one of four or five half-hearted remakes he has directed since 2001. His work has felt creatively neutered for some time now, and even the allure of Johnny Depp as a vampire could not save Dark Shadows from financial failure this past summer. Now, for his second film of the year, he is essentially remaking one of his own films. Can Frankenweenie provide the creative spark he so desperately needs?
Tim Burton started his career as an animator at Disney back in the ’80s, and during his stint there
he made a strange short film about a boy who learns to bring his pet dog back from the dead. At the time, Disney deemed it too dark for children and eventually fired Burton because of it. Ironically, nearly 30 years later they’ve had a change of heart and have allowed Burton to give it the feature length stop motion treatment — in 3D, no less. The result is one of the more inspired and personal projects we’ve seen from Burton in quite some time.
As the title implies, Frankenweenie is obviously a loose retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this case, Victor Frankenstein is a young boy with a knack for inventions who doesn’t have a lot of friends aside from his pet dog, Sparky. Victor is devastated when an accident takes Sparky’s life, but after learning about electrical currents in science class, he is struck with an idea for a rather macabre science project. After successfully bringing Sparky back to life, he struggles to hide him from his family and neighbours, but that proves to be the least of his worries when the other kids in his class try to recreate his experiment with disastrous results.
Lovingly crafted in stop motion animation by the same team who did Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie is presented entirely in black and white, paying tribute to the original short. It’s a pretty ballsy choice for a movie aimed at kids, and although it may limit the film’s commercial appeal, it automatically adds a warm and fuzzy feeling of familiarity for Burton fans. Unlike the other stop motion movies he has worked on, this is the first one that Burton has taken sole directorial credit on and his influence is definitely evident. In particular, Victor’s hobby of shooting amateur monster movies on Super 8 draws a direct connection to Burton, and the balance of quirky humour, horror references and heartfelt moments are akin to some of Burton’s best films (especially Ed Wood).
The film’s supporting cast is quite enjoyable, from Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), a pesky classmate with a hunchback, to Victor’s science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), and Victor’s garden-obsessed next door neighbour, Mr. Bergermeister (Martin Short), who is also the mayor of New Holland. Plenty of typical Burton collaborators give memorable performances here; standouts include Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara who are both called upon to voice multiple characters. In some cases, the unique character designs provide more than enough laughs on their own (ie. the eccentric girl shares the same bulging eyes as her pet cat).
Screenwriter John August previously wrote Big Fish for Burton and has been working with him ever since. He does a solid job of taking the original concept and fleshing it out into a full-length script. The second act of the film does slow down a bit as there is no real conflict aside from the fact that Victor is trying to keep Sparky out of sight. Fortunately, the third act delivers plenty of action in the form of some classic monster mayhem. Like Big Fish, Frankenweenie tugs at your heart strings at times, but this is somewhat offset by the light sprinkling of gallows humour throughout.
The other interesting thing about this movie is that it doesn’t necessarily sugarcoat some of the dark issues that it is concerned with. It does address the subject of death in ways that most family films wouldn’t, and while that will likely scare off some parents, I think it’s handled rather deftly. There is a compromise between that perfect happy ending and the acceptance of death that feels appropriate. More than that, however, I especially liked the focus on Victor’s science teacher, who reminds him that science is important and shouldn’t be feared, although it should be approached with caution. Frankenweenie isn’t about the folly of “playing god” so to speak, it’s a simple and sweet love story about a boy and his dog.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this movie and I think it’s fair to call it a return to form for Tim Burton. While Frankenweenie may not be as memorable as some of his work from the ’80s and early ’90s, I do think it is the strongest of the horror-themed animated movies to hit theatres lately. It’s clear that this was a labour of love, and just like Sparky, even though it’s a little rough around the edges, you simply can’t help getting attached to it. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Ed Wood, Corpse Bride, Monsters vs. Aliens