MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Tim Burton
FilmPulse Score: 7/10
Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie first appeared in 1984 as a short film with Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern and Barret Oliver (otherwise known as Bastian from The NeverEnding Story). The stop-motion animated film follows the original storyline but adds just enough to turn it into a feature-length film. One gets the feeling that the idea in these films is one of Burton’s most intimate and personal of his 28 year career. Indeed, it seems that the film’s main character has been imbued with many of Burton’s own traits – the outsider with wild ideas and a solitary, yet no less adventurous spirit. Burton’s personal affection for this character could be why he chose to retell his story nearly twenty years on.
Frankenweenie is obviously a re-telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with a young boy, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) reanimating his beloved dog and companion Sparky. Victor has a love of films, it seems, especially monster movies. The opening of the film shows Victor and his parents watching a monster movie he directed in the backyard. Naturally, the film stars Sparky as the hero, coming to the rescue and saving a makeshift town and its residents – army men and other assorted action figures – from a plastic monster figurine tied to a stick. Victor and Sparky are inseparable; everything Victor does, Sparky does with him – even when Victor is playing baseball. Which, unfortunately, is how Sparky meets his end.
Sparky is hit by a car when he chases a ball into the street – the result of an unlikely home run hit by his owner during Victor’s first baseball game. Victor is devestated, and spends his free time tragically drawing cartoons of his beloved pet. When a new, somewhat menacing teacher that resembles Vincent Price takes over Victor’s science class by the name of Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) (after his previous teacher was, apparently, “hit” by lightning), Victor comes up with a plan to bring his friend back. A lesson on electricity motivates Victor to dig up Sparky’s remains and, through an elaborate and well-planned experiment (for his science fair!), he is able to dramatically bring life back to Sparky’s inanimate body.
The rest of the film progresses somewhat quickly and, for the most part, uneventfully. Victor goes to school, leaving Sparky hidden in the attic so that no one will prematurely discover the nature of his “science project.” Sparky, though, discovers a way out and is left to his own for a day. As a result, one of Victor’s school-mates spots Sparky and frightens Victor into demonstrating his remarkable feat for him. Meanwhile, the teacher who inspired Victor is forced out of the school due to parents’ concern that his science lessons are endangering their children by teaching them about things they can’t, and shouldn’t, understand. Victor is saddened by this and bids goodbye to the teacher, gaining a valuable lesson in the process which, it seems, he took to heart by the end of the film. Word gets out about Victor’s science project, and many of the other students try to emulate Victor’s success, with disasterous results. Several mutant animals are unleashed onto the unsuspecting town and it is up to Victor and Sparky to save the day.
Beautifully rendered in black and white, stop-motion claymation, Frankenweenie is a wonderful sight on the big screen. However, I did not get to see the film in 3D and IMAX, so I can’t attest to the effects of 3D whether they are beneficial or detrimental to the film as a whole. Burton’s animation and characters have a style all their own, which is that of grotesque beauty and misunderstood awkwardness and darkness always set in a highly imaginative world.
On the surface, Frankenweenie is about the special relationship between a socially awkward loner and his dog, but it is also a homage to all the things that helped the socially awkward loner that is Tim Burton in his childhood. The film is filled with references to classic horror and monster movies from Burton’s youth – Victor’s school-mate Nassor (Martin Short), whom looks a lot like Bela Lugosi and Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), which is an obviously Igor, but also a nod to Edward Gorey and numerous others throughout the film. Frankenweenie plays like Burton injecting his childhood, his influences and his passions into the storyline of Frankenstein. Mr. Rzykruski asks Victor if he loved his first experiment (which worked), to which Victor replies “yes” and then if he loved his second experiment (which didn’t work), to which Victor replies “no.” This exchange perfectly sums up why Frankenweenie is such a good film compared to the most recent misfires in Burton’s filmography.