PLOT: Young Victor Frankenstein is a loner, with his only refuge being science and his beloved dog Sparky- who’s promptly hit by a car and killed. Victor is able to bring him back to life via his scientific know-how, but- naturally, there are complications.
REVIEW: A big-screen, stop-motion remake of his landmark 1984 short film- FRANKENWEENIE is interesting in that it comes from Walt Disney Pictures- the same company that shelved his short back in the eighties because it was “too weird.” Little did the suits back in 1984 realize how much audiences would eventually come to appreciate Burton’s weirdness...
While FRANKENWEENIE is a little more conventional than his other animated films (CORPSE BRIDE and the great NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS) or rather, as conventional as a black and white cartoon about a dead-dog can be, this still feels like more of a “Tim Burton movie” in the classic sense than a lot of his more recent live action films. Like the short that inspired it, FRANKENWEENIE is presumably inspired by Burton’s own childhood as an outsider growing up in 1960’s suburbia. Young Victor is, like Edward Scissorhands before him, a Burton doppelganger, with that same wild mop of black hair and pale, angular features.
That said- the world of FRANKENWEENIE is far less cruel than similar suburban towns featured in his other films, so maybe Burton’s mellowing. Maybe the fact that FRANKENWEENIE is a kids film also has something to do with it, although like CORPSE BRIDE and NIGHTMARE, this seems like it’ll be of more interest to teens and adults than the target kiddie audience.
What’s funny about FRANKENWEENIE is that Victor, the loner, seems way more normal than anyone else in his class, which includes the emaciated “Weird Girl”- whose cat poos the initials of her classmates anytime something big is about to happen to them (shades of David Lynch?), the imperious Toshiaki, the deformed Edgar E. Gore (hint, hint) and others.
Weirdness aside, at the heart of FRANKENWEENIE is the familiar story of a boy and his dog, and having grown up with a beloved pooch of my own (RIP Mickey), the interaction between Victor and Sparky put a big smile on my face. The stop-motion animation is beautifully rendered in beautiful black and white, and continuing the retro-feel, Sparky even looks a bit like Burton’s own “Family Dog” (a very short-lived animated sitcom I remember watching in the early nineties)- although the 3D effects are, as usual, only marginally eye-catching.
Burton fans will get a kick out of the voice cast, which includes two Burton vets- Martin Landau as the spooky science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (he even uses his ED WOOD Bela Lugosi-voice), and Winona Ryder as his neighbor Elsa- and the object of his affections. Catherine O’Hara, replaces Shelly Duvall as Victor's mum- and sticks around to voice a few additional characters- including “Weird Girl” and the crazy gym teacher. Martin Short plays Victor’s father, as well as the heavily accented town Mayor Van Helsing- although that name makes me think Burton’s got his homages mixed up. Another Burton fave, Christopher Lee- has an inspired cameo involving a scene from one of his old-Hammer horror classics.
Given that this is a remake of a 24-minute short, you can reasonably assume Burton and screenwriter John August (another Burton vet) have expanded the story. As a result, the whole third act of FRANKENWEENIE, involving Victor’s town being overrun by hideously deformed mutant pets that have been brought back from the dead, is new. In this section of the film, Burton pays homage to the classic rampaging monster films of his youth, such as THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THEM- with Danny Elfman’s score also having a bit of a retro-fifties style sound (as a whole, this is one of Elfman’s best scores in a while). While certainly this all is going to feel a little tacked-on if you’re familiar with the short, it’s still a fun, even playful, addition.
While kids will probably enjoy the animated hijinks Victor and his re-animated dog get up too (it’s certainly family friendly- with the stitched-up Sparky looking more cute than creepy), again- I suspect this is going to be more appealing to Burton’s older fans. While Burton’s films have been mostly miss in the last few years (although I thought DARK SHADOWS was underrated) - with FRANKENWEENIE Burton seems more engaged than he’s been in a while. If it takes this type of stop-motion animated film to give us a real “Burton film” again, than let’s hope he returns to the form more often.