It’s fitting, in a way, Tim Burton had to revisit the origins of his career in order to find the magic his most recent movies have been sorely missing. Frankenweenie, Burton’s latest stop-motion animated family film and a full-length adaptation of a short film Burton made early in his career, is full of heart, autobiographical joy and amazing design work. In other words, it’s the type of movie Burton’s fans have been patiently waiting for through a preceding decade that has seen the filmmaker transform himself into a studio gun-for-hire.
With Frankenweenie, Burton is once again operating on a motivation etched in love and a desire for something more abstract that a paycheck. A tale obviously inspired by Burton’s own childhood, Frankenweenie stars the voice of Charlie Tahan, as Victor Frankenstein, a young boy with a mile-long creative streak and a deep love for his dog. When his best friend is hit by a car, Victor turns his love for science towards discovering a way to re-animate his dead pooch. After an inspiring science lecture from his teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau voicing a character visually inspired by Vincent Price), Victor successfully figures out a way to harness the power of lightening and wind to breathe life back into his pooch.
From there the film slows its pace a bit and finds inspiration not in horror films as much as the great silent movies of the ‘20s. As Sparky finds himself back in the world – but hid away from those that might not understand his resurrection, large portions of the film are told without dialogue. It’s here that Burton’s animation team really gets a chance to strut and show their stuff. Deft facial animation gives Sparky, the reanimated dog at the center of the story, a well-defined personality without having to hoist upon the character some b-level celebrity’s voice (*cough* Dreamworks *cough*).
Unfortunately for Victor’s sanity (but fortunately for fans of monster lovers), these Buster Keaton-inspired hijinks don’t last forever and before long Victor’s classmates (a strange group of fiendish playground misfits) discover Sparky and plot to steal Victor’s science and use it to conduct their own experiments . The kids, each an homage to a different horror sub-genre, manage to unleash a swarm of monsters upon their town and it’s up to Victor and Sparky to save the day.
While Paranorman was one big juicy love letter to ‘70s and ‘80s horror – as seen through the eyes of a kid – Frankenweenie digs a bit deeper into the past to finds its inspiration in the golden age of classic movie monsters. Burton has filled the movie with a string of classy (i.e., not obnoxiously obvious) references to the greats – from Boris Karloff to Toho studios to Burton’s hero, himself, Vincent Price. The movie, shot in black and white, is a modern interpretation of all the great staples of horror from Burton’s past.
What doesn’t work nearly as well are the parents, voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara. Over the years, as Burton has grown and begun a family of his own, his view on parents has seemingly shifted from the obtrusive and misunderstanding nuisance most parental figures appeared to be in Burton’s earlier films to something a bit kinder and more understanding. Victor’s parents are loving and, although some of their actions may be a bit misguided, they have the best of intentions for their son. Unfortunately, in his efforts to paint the stark difference between Victor’s creativity and his parent’s suburban lifestyle, Burton and screenwriter John August have created a pair of truly unmemorable cardboard stand-ins that serve little purpose to the story. Thankfully, O’Hara and Short are given plenty of other characters to voice – each providing ample opportunity to let the comedians let their hair down, so to speak.
Frankenweenie is frequently scary – some of the creature designs are frightening in a way you rarely see in children’s movies. It’s also very touching – there are moments in the film in which Victor has to deal with the loss of his dog in which film manages to recapture that ol’ traumatizing streak that all classic Disney cartoons know well. Unfortunately, Frankenweenie is of duel nature in this regards – it also features Disney’s other habit of shoehorning in happy endings where another finale would have, perhaps, had been more appropriate.
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Cast: Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short and Martin Landau
Writers: John August, based on the short film Frankenweenie by Tim Burton