Tim Burton first made this film in 1984, as a darkly whimsical, live-action short for Walt Disney. Disney executives disliked the result, which they found too frightening for children. They shelved plans to play the film before the rereleased Pinocchio, though it did accompany some showings of Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. They also fired the young director. Years later, with Burton established as a brilliant (though wildly uneven) crafter of darkly whimsical films, Disney decided to give him another chance. This time he used stop-motion animation. The results, while not perfect, succeeds, a stitched-together monster of a movie with a likeable heart.
Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a small town whiz kid loses his beloved dog, Sparky, to a car accident. In his grief, he turns to mad science and brings the beloved pet back from the dead. Mayhem ensues, and multiplies, as New Holland's other science-minded misfits copy the experiment.
All of this Burton and company illustrate in black and white, with fantastic, stylized stop-motion creations. We're somewhere around 1970, but also in a world where some kid can cobble together the odds and ends of his house into a functioning mad scientist's lab.
The film looks great, thought it's not really original. It is, after all, a remake of an earlier work (Burton even recreated some of the original short's shots), which was itself heavily influenced by various incarnations of Frankenstein. Frankenweenie also raids the entire history of horror movies, providing its audience with numerous easter eggs, gag allusions, and affectionate moments of parody. The science teacher (Martin Landau) resembles Vincent Price; many of the other townsfolk look like characters from Universal's old monster movies. Young Victor's love interest, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), has been made from the same fabric as Wednesday Addams and Coraline. Her poodle, who sparks Sparky's interest, has a Bride of Frankenstein 'do. And New Holland's local landmark? A windmill, which horror-movie fans will find suspiciously familiar.
The gothic ridiculousness that pervades Frankenweenie reaches an apotheosis as the film approaches its climax. Elsa sings a hilarious tribute to small town life while the various science misfits of New Holland Elementary unleash a torrent of mad science and a horde of crazed monsters on an unsuspecting community. The sequence is hysterically funny—but not necessarily for the youngest kids. No child likely gets the ironic humor of Elsa's musical number, and a few of the wee ones in the theater where we saw this were genuinely terrified. Of course, the hijinks can't remain merely funny. Once they're safe, the bedeviled townsfolk turn on the young Frankenstein and his creation. Despite the obviously parodic nature of these scenes (people even carry torches), we're led to believe that this just might end with the mob triumphant over the "monster."
An interesting highlight comes when the teacher, Rzykruski tries to defend science, but his inadequate grasp of English nuance and social decorum damns him. The poor man is simply too truthful. He later concludes that the townsfolk "like what science gives them, but not the questions." Yes, it's a trifle heavy-handed, but perhaps it needs to be. We do love our computers and iphones and medical breakthroughs-- but, in the months leading to this film's release, one American elected official asserted his belief that women don't get pregnant from "legitimate rape" while another announced that evolution, the Big Bang theory, and embryology are "lies straight from the pit of hell." Both men, in 2012, sit on the U.S. government's House Subcommittee on Science Investigation and Oversight.
The film drags a little between its bright, self-referential opening, and its exciting third act. It also suffers from some forced plot development. Character development, too, is limited, and very broad; Pixar would have given these characters greater internal depth. Burton's models, however, allow for external expressiveness, and they permit the dogs to be more personable beings than we see in the original short film.
Braver children and adults will like the film for its dark but amusing and ultimately life-affirming story. Horror fans will enjoy the references. Others may just have affection for a cartoon which, as in Looney Tunes of old, permits its characters to do dangerously stupid things that, in real life, would likely get them killed. And some viewers, I think, might want to dream about life in New Holland-- at least, the version we see by the movie's conclusion. I think a lot of kids would have been very happy there.
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Tim Burton, John August, Leonard Ripps.
Charlie Tahan as Victor Frankenstein
Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing
Catherine O'Hara as Mrs. Frankenstein/Weird Girl/Gym Teacher
Martin Short as Mr. Frankenstein/Mr. Burgemeister/Nassor
Martin Landau as Mr. Rzykruski
Atticus Shaffer as Egar E. Gore
James Hiroyuki Liao as Toshiaki
Robert Capron as Bob
Christopher Lee as Dracula
The final point contains spoilers.
So, don't read further if you're not fond of spoilers.
I understand that the film's status as a family movie pretty much necessitated Sparky's second resurrection from the dead, but wouldn't it be more honest if he'd stayed dead at the end? Pets die. They do not return. And the actions of Sparky and Victor have changed the town for the better, something heroes can do, even if they must sacrifice themselves to that end.