The hardest lesson learned in life is how to deal with the loss of a loved one. A lot of us learn that lesson early on when a cherished family pet dies and that’s what’s at the heart of Tim Burton’s funny and sometimes a little dark stop motion-animated Frankenweenie, a clever riff on Mary Shelley’s Franksenstein and the many Universal horror films that story spawned. Far from Frankenstein’s musty old German castle however, Burton shifts his location to a sunny suburbia stuck in the early 1960s – a neighborhood which looks an awful lot like the Burbank California Burton himself grew up in. There we find Victor, a budding young filmmaker and science wiz whose dog Sparky is hit by a car and killed. Of course, Victor is no ordinary kid. He’s a Frankenstein which means he comes from a long line of movie mad men who knew a thing or two about bringing the dead back to life. So, instead of going through the usual stages of grief, Victor jumps right ahead to reanimating Sparky’s corpse through the powers of science and electricity! What could possibly go wrong?

Burton originally conceived of Frankenweenie back in the ’80s but could only get enough money from Disney for a live-action 30-minute short film. This new version keeps most of the original story while fleshing it out and adding to it without ever dragging it down. The new plot threads are logical extensions of what was already there and they feel organic rather than tacked on as filler. There’s also an interesting new pro-science theme running through the story. The original Frankenstein sort of played on fears about the arrogance of science, but Frankenweenie embraces science in the face of a superstitious and suspicious collection of parents and neighbors. Victor’s actions have unexpected consequences of course, especially when his friends get wind of what he’s up to and want to repeat the process with their own pets, but there’s never really any question that Victor’s actions aren’t logical and reasonable.

Littered with affectionate references to the horror films Burton grew up on – not just Frankenstein, but Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf Man and later films like Godzilla – Frankenweenie also collects a lot of Burton’s favored themes about outsiders. Somehow though, he manages to take all of these elements and fuse them into a cohesive and entertaining whole that is unquestionably his own.

The high point for me is its unique look. Beautifully rendered in black and white stop-motion animation, Burton’s characters are based on the original drawings he did back in the 1980s. It’s a throwback to a more experimental and playful Burton, the Burton that seemed to get lost in the recent gaudy and dispiriting Alice in Wonderland for example. Of all the wonderful, creepy, wide-eyed charactrs, my favorite is Victor’s science teacher Mr. Rzykruski. A tall, thin, ominous looking figure, he looks a lot like Vincent Price but he sounds a little like Bela Lugosi. Not coincidentally, Rzykruski is voiced by the great Martin Landau who was also so wonderful as Lugosi in Burton’s masterpiece Ed Wood.

Also great is Victor’s friend, Edgar “E” Gore, a hunchbacked riff on the Igor character who sounds a bit like a grade school Peter Lorre with an overbite.

Other recognizable voices beside Landau include SCTV alumni Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara as Victor’s parents, and Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing, kind of a goth, moping girl next door. Unlike of lot of these big animated pictures however, Burton never really milks his celebrity voices. They all blend in nicely.

With Frankenweenie, Burton has returned to his roots to build a limitless sandbox in which to play out old visions and childhood remembrances. This is a world that is uniquely Burton’s. For all of its wonderful style though, it is at heart a story about a boy and his dog. It’s dark and creepy at times, but it is ultimately sweet natured. Burton is at his best when he gets the balance of twistedness and sentimentality just right and here he’s hit the sweet spot.

8 Responses to “Frankenweenie (2012)”

  1. I am delighted to have read this descriptive and provocative essay in advance of the viewing of the film that I will be negotiating tomorrow afternoon. The ‘loss of a loved one’ is indeed a subject that requires leaving the box, and everything you say here and what I’ve read elsewhere is indicating that Burton has gloriously risen to the challenge. Thilled to see that Landau’s wonderful voice is part of the show, which looks like a perfectly timed Halloween charmer.

  2. Hard for me to believe you and the family won’t go for this one, particularly if you have any affinity at all for Burton’s style. If you’ve seen the original short film, this is very much the same, but it has the added plus of Burton’s wonderful character designs.

  3. Having seen (and enjoyed) the short version of Frankenweenie some time ago, I’mg glad to hear that the new version is great to watch. I hope Burton can rebound with his later projects, ’cause Dark Shadows was overall disappointing (except Eva Green).

  4. If you liked the short version, I can’t imagine you won’t also like this new one. I liked it a bit more because of the style and the animation and the new characters.

  5. Well Craig, you called it right! Yes I do often have an affinity for Burton’s style, and four of my five kids (the eldest daughter, who is 16 now stayed back) attended and liked it.

    I am seriously thinking about a four-and-a-half star rating. The film has entered into my favorite Burton listing.

    In no particular order these are the Top Five by the director for me:

    Sweeney Todd
    Edward Scissorhands
    Ed Wood
    Frankenweenie
    The Corpse Bride.

    I know, most would also include NIGHTMARE near the top.

    Anyway there’s so much to praise in FRANKENWEENIE, and in the end I was seriously moved by it. I have seen the short and liked that as well.

  6. Good news Sam. I would’ve been a little surprised if you hadn’t liked it at least a somewhat. Glad to hear it’s entering the pantheon of your favorites.

    I think working with older material really reinvigorated Burton. It all felt very personal.

  7. Forgot to ask this, but how do you see the Oscar race for Animated pictures? I assume Frankenweenie should be on top with Brave and ParaNorman. Like Puss in Boots last year, Frankeweenie has great timing for premiering this right around the time award-baiting films pop up, unlike say Winnie The Pooh.

  8. The only two I’ve seen so far this year are Brave and Frankenweenie. But people seemed to really like Paranorman and I think you’re right about those being likely nominees.

    I’ve heard good things about Wreck it Ralph too, so it might boil down to how many nominees there are this year.

    So far, I’m quietly rooting for Frankenweenie.

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