Editor’s note: Halloween comes early with this week’s release of Frankenweenie. For some delicious review snacks to go with your candy corn, here is a re-run of our Fantastic Fest review of the film, published just two weeks ago, on September 20, 2012.
Since 1984, Tim Burton has directed fifteen feature films. And according to my research assistant Siri, eleven of those fifteen went over well (and were made “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes) with critics. So it’s not outside the realm of possibilities that Burton could be considered a great director. Unfortunately for the man behind Edward Scissorhands and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, a number of those not-so-fresh movies have come in recent years. Alice in Wonderland was a messy 3D “experience” and Dark Shadows was laughable, and not in a good way. If you ask any movie-loving member of the internet community what they think of Tim Burton these days, the answer is more than likely to skew negative. That’s because we have the collective short term memory of Leonard from Memento when it comes to directors.
Lucky for us, 2012 Tim Burton still remembers the guy he was in 1984, and has since returned to direct Frankenweenie, his black-and-white stop-motion ode to classic monster movies and the bond between a boy and his dog, based on the 1984 short of the same name.
At the heart of the story, penned in part by John August, is Victor Frankenstein. Voiced by Charlie Tahan (Charlie St. Cloud), Victor is a loner in the well-manicured suburb of New Holland — which is like 1950s Burbank, California, but with far more Dutchness. Victor has but one friend, his dog Sparky. After an unfortunate turn of events leads Sparky into the path of an oncoming car, Victor’s friend count drops to zero. Yet amidst the sadness of losing his friend, Victor finds inspiration from his new science teacher, the thunderously overbearing, generically Eastern European Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by the always-incredible Martin Landau). Using the town’s odd overabundance of lightning, Victor concocts a plan to bring Sparky back to life with science. And he does. And it’s great. Until the other creepy kids of New Holland find out and it all goes wrong.
Those who have seen the short from 1984, which is said to have gotten Burton fired from Disney for making films wastefully, will note that the 2012 Frankenweenie isn’t cut from too different a cloth. The heart of the story is still there, as are some shot-for-shot scenes. Except this time, Burton and the team behind The Corpse Bride have created a beautifully detailed stop-motion environment and used 3D technology to create a window into another world. One in which dogs can be brought back to life and hunchbacked kids have names like Edgar ‘E’ Gore. The world moves with fluidity and imperfection, creating something that’s new but also something that feels very familiar. A digital window to a previous time and place.
Adding to the nostalgia factor is the film’s romance with the classic monsters of cinema. Beyond Victor as a clear reference for Dr. Frankenstein, there are a number of other great references. From Victor’s neighbor, Mr. Van Helsing, to a literal appearance by the 1958 Christopher Lee film Horror of Dracula. There are plenty more, including a number of little ones that will perhaps surprise you, as they’re a bit more contemporary, but we won’t get into that. Why should I spoil that for you? Picking out the references is part of the fun memory game that Frankenweenie is playing.
Everyone involved seems to be playing the memory game. In his score, Danny Elfman tosses in (whether intentional or unintentional) a subtle, perceived homage to his 1989 Batman score in a wonderfully appropriate moment. In their script, Burton and John August want us to remember our first true bond of friendship, which in many cases involved a beloved pet. And most importantly, Tim Burton gives us reason to remember why we hold him to such high standards today. Because like many of us, he’s a lover of the imagination that can be brought to life on the big screen.
That’s not to say that Frankenweenie is without its imperfections. Like it’s title character, there are some stitches that didn’t get sewn in tightly enough. The movie meanders at times in its effort to draw a feature film out of a great 30-minute short story, and it moves sluggishly until the final act. And despite the fact that all of the visuals are mesmerizing, most notably the depth employed with 3D, there is some muddling in the message the film is trying to send. At one point, through a great monologue delivered with the fire of the sun by Landau’s character, the film begins to say something to parents about the benefits of exploration and science education. But such high ideas are quickly left behind in service of the core narrative, about a boy who loves his dog.
But on the whole, Frankenweenie is a charming, beautifully crafted film that brings back the feelings of some classic monster movies, all in a way that will play like gangbusters with the kids. For the rest of us, it’s a nice reminder that today’s Tim Burton can still tell us a story that’s personal and affecting, just like the Tim Burton of old.
The Upside: Gorgeously animated and playful in its love of classic monsters, Burton’s little dog movie has enough charm to overcome its faults.
The Downside: It has some sluggishness, or a little extra fat in its mid-section.
On the Side: A number of the character designs seen in the 2012 version of Frankenweenie are based on drawings made by Burton in preparation for the 1984 short. He had intended to do that film in stop-motion, but budget constraints led it to be done live-action.