Synopsis: Young Victor conducts a science experiment to bring his beloved dog Sparky back to life, only to face unintended, sometimes monstrous, consequences.
Voice Stars: Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell
Director: Tim Burton
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: When director Tim Burton was just a young upstart animator at Disney studios he had an idea for a film about a boy who loves his dog so much that when the dog dies he goes to great Frankenstein-like lengths to bring the pup back from the grave. The result was a non-animated 29 minute black and white short that was too ahead of its time and macabre for its Target audience and Disney execs. In fact, Burton was pretty much shown the door when Disney couldn’t find a way to market it.
That all changed when Burton became a hot commodity in Hollywood and now 1984’s Frankenweenie is seen as a pivotal piece of Burton’s film history as it laid the groundwork in tone and style for many of his films of the 80’s and 90’s. Who could have imagined that almost 30 years later Burton would be back in the good Disney graces and given the greenlight for a big budget, full-length, stop-motion animated version of his live action early work?
While the years have been kind to the original Frankenweenie, the time between the two versions has allowed Burton to collaborate again with screenwriter John August (Dark Shadows, Corpse Bride, Big Fish) to expand upon the original script by Leonard Ripps and, um, flesh out some of the characters to expand the story. The film benefits greatly from these new additions so what was once a fairly contained story about boy and dog now is now on a totally different level incorporating classic monster moments with a richly beating heart at its center.
Those that know the original can spot how carefully close the first part of the movie sticks to the first version. It’s when added characters (seen only before as walk on roles) start to take center stage that the film veers from its humble origins and takes on a life of its own. Burton and August have given young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Tahan with sincere compassion) an outrageously weird group of classmates that just wouldn’t have been possible in 1984.
There’s the wide eyed girl with a cat that tells the future from its litter box, an Igor-like hunchback, a just slightly un-PC Japanese boy, a rotund and roly-poly mouth breather, and a Boris Karloff inspired sorta villain – all providing hearty laughs thanks to the actors that give them voice-life and a bold character design that tells you everything you need to know about them before they even speak. Even Victor’s next door neighbor Elsa (Ryder, with an on-the-nose/asleep-at-the-wheel delivery) skews weird so much so that outcast Victor looks the most normal of the bunch.
Like ParaNorman, the movie is unafraid to create characters that aren’t as appealing visually as one would normally think they should be. It’s a warts and all approach that works for both films, though ParaNorman took it one step further…probably because the filmmakers didn’t have to answer to Disney brass. Still, these are quite dark characters that work in service to the mood that the film is trying to create.
Another similarity to ParaNorman is that the film tests the boundaries of the PG rating. While there isn’t anything objectionable enough to warrant a bump to PG-13, it’s a pretty intense movie for youngsters so parents should be aware. It’s fairly scary, particularly in the last 20 minutes when the premise of Victor’s experiment falls into several wrong hands and all hell breaks loose. Parents…take into account where your kids are at, imagination wise, and see if this is the right time to introduce them to this material. If not, there are more than enough options out now that you can choose instead.
The technical elements are, as usual, spot on for a Burton film. Thankfully, there’s a sweet absence of heavily CGI-ed images because the stop-motion technique doesn’t call for it. Instead there are some finely intricate details that are employed to create the 1950’s-ish town of New Holland that may remind you more than a little of the hamlet employed in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands. Utilizing over 200 puppets (with human hair!), the townspeople come to life with ease…aided by strong voice work from O’Hara, Short, and Landau…most of them doing double or triple duty.
Danny Elfman’s score is pretty standard Elfman fare – more than a few times I heard themes from other collaborations with Burton. Intentional or not, the rare bits that didn’t have a familiar theme were lush and appropriate for the proceedings.
Black and white was absolutely the way to go but it oddly didn’t work well with the 3D. While B&W filming produces crisp images, the lack of color doesn’t lend itself to making the 3D effects pop like they should. It gives the film the requisite added depth but moments that were clearly intended to produce images that stand out only half achieved their goal. It’s still worth it to see the work in 3D because that’s how it was filmed but overall I felt it lacked the impact it was going for.
This was a nice return to form for Burton who, as of recently, has started to favor gaudy CGI effects over practical invention on film sets. I know it’s more cost effective to go down the route he is now, but his movies have suffered because of it. What was so great about Frankenweenie is how much it reminded me of his earlier work which in itself was a throwback to the classic films of his youth. By reinventing his own work, he’s given his old dog a jolt of life.