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.
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