Frankenweenie (United States, 2012)

October 04, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Frankenweenie Poster

Frankenweenie is Tim Burton's animated remake of his live-action 1984 short of the same name. With its unabashed affection for classic monster movies and nods to Universal horror staples, Frankenweenie is almost certain to be beloved by fans of the genre. Its mainstream commercial potential is uncertain. Burton's fascination with the macabre is in evidence here - some of the creations in this stop-motion nightmare may frighten young children. And Frankenweenie is in black-and-white - a somewhat gutsy decision on the part of Burton and Disney and one of the rare recent times when style has not taken a back seat to potential box office gain.

At its heart, Frankenweenie tells two love stories - that of a boy and his dog and that of a man and the movies he cherished as a child. Like Hugo and Super 8, Frankenweenie exists in part as an homage. This is a more personal movie for Burton than one might initially suspect. The very fact that he elected to re-tell this story after 28 years is an indication of how much it means to him. And I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, as a kid, he had a dog named Sparky.

Even as the narrative becomes progressively more ghoulish and a Godzilla wannabe shows up, Frankenweenie never loses its heart. The boy, Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan), would appear to be a Tim Burton stand-in. He certainly bears more than a passing resemblance to a young version of the filmmaker. Victor has only one true friend: his dog Sparky and, when Sparky is killed chasing a ball across a street, Victor is inconsolable. All is not lost, however. Victor's school science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), preaches about the power of lightning and electricity. So Victor digs up Sparky, patches him together, and constructs a rig that will channel the power of a thunderstorm into the inanimate body. Soon after, although a little worse for the wear, Sparky is running, jumping, and playing. As Victor's success becomes known, schoolmates try the same thing with their extinct pets (rodents, sea monkeys, a turtle), but the results are not as benign.

The 1984 version of Frankenweenie was a pretty straightforward re-imagining of Frankenstein. To beef the material up to three times the original length, a variety of elements were added, resulting in an oddly paced, extended middle section. I enjoyed the sequence with the Godzilla knock-off stomping around town, but wondered what this was doing in a version of Frankenstein.

Burton hasn't employed so many references to old films since Ed Wood. There's a nod to Elsa Lanchester's wild hairdo from The Bride of Frankenstein. The girl next door is named Elsa Van Helsing (her voice is supplied by Winona Ryder). Christopher Lee's vocals have a cameo (playing Dracula). A dead pet is called "Shelly" (as in "Mary Shelly"). There's a hunchback named 'E' Gore. And so on... If one was to compile a comprehensive list of every nod to an earlier production, it would be longer than this review.

Frankenweenie is a creation of stop-motion animation and represents Burton's first venture outside live action in seven years. Burton loves animation because of its ability to empower imagination. It's no coincidence that the best films he had produced in the last decade are this one and 2005's Corpse Bride. The animation is remarkably clean for stop-motion; there are only a few instances when there are minor hitches or stutters in a character's movement. The 3-D falls into the "unnecessary but not damaging" category. Since it's in black-and-white, there are no worries about muted, muddy colors. (I believe this is the first b&w movie to be subjected to this iteration of 3-D.)

Frankenweenie may confound children expecting something bright, light, and colorful. It is none of those three. The emotional content and visual style will have their greatest impact on sophisticated kids and older viewers. A lot of what Frankenweenie offers will be lost on those who haven't seen the Universal horror canon or haven't read Shelly's novel. Even a familiarity with the director's oeuvre will add to the viewer's ability to appreciate what Burton is attempting here. In keeping with a desire to make Frankenweenie low-key, Burton avoids Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, instead employing the vocal talents of Charlie Tahan former collaborators Martin Short, Winona Ryder and Catherine O'Hara.

In general, I'm not the biggest fan of remakes, but this is one instance in which the result justifies the effort. The 1984 short is entertaining but its transformation from live action to animation and the addition of extra material makes it a more rewarding experience, both emotionally and stylistically. In terms of content, it's appropriate for most children but this is one instance when adults are likely to derive more pleasure than their offspring. It's not often that can be said about an animated endeavor.

Frankenweenie (United States, 2012)

Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 2012-10-05
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1