Over the past month or so, we’ve already witnessed a few kid-oriented animation flicks — Paranorman and Hotel Transylvania — that have paid homage to the creature features of decades past. As luck would have it, a third contender has arrived and quite easily shoos the other two away. Now I know what you’re thinking. Tim Burton has really lost his spark over the past few years, but he’s gotten it back, thanks to his tale of a boy and his dog named Sparky. The story arrives in the form of a stop-action animated film that revels within its various shades of black and white and comes with optional (superfluous) 3-D as well. The movie itself feels miles away from the ill-advised Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows shades of hell that Burton fell into most recently when his Depp-reliant shtick was beginning to feel tired at best. Finally as well, Burton isn’t adapting someone else’s tale here but is once again working again with his own ideas (even if the story itself is obviously a Frankenstein knockoff).
Frankenweenie is, of course, a remake of Burton’s own 1984 (live-action) short film (available at YouTube or as a special feature on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD) by the same name. Does the feature-length film succeed as a remake? Very much so, and it’s much like the original except that it’s been fleshed out quite a bit and looks a lot sharper too, which is only to be expected from 2012-type technology. This time, Burton goes with black and white again, which is just perfect here in its stunning, monochrome execution. In this update, Burton (along with screenwriter John August) has added a brand new second act that includes several new characters (and requisite motives), which makes things feel a little bit cluttered compared to the original, but it’s not too much to bear. This isn’t a perfect unabridged version of the original story, but it’s still filled with all sort of heart, and Frankenweenie is such a bittersweet experience that even a decrepit, non-feeling type like myself isn’t afraid to admit to shedding a tear (or three) during certain moments.
Frankenweenie follows a typical Burton protagonist, a young outcast boy called Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), whose dog named Sparky (Frank Welker, uncredited) is his very best friend and stars in his master’s homemade monster movies. Unfortunately, Sparky meets an untimely demise early on in the film, but alas, the sadness does not last for long because Victor figures out how to use electricity to bring his dog back from the dead, This is a great turn of events except that Victor then has to figure out how to keep everyone from finding out about the sweet, well-mannered, yet slightly stupid dog who refuses to keep himself a secret. Soon, Victor’s bizarre yet charmed life with his parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) is thrown into massive disarray thanks to meddling neighbors and two terrible classmates, Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) and Weird Girl (O’Hara again), who decide to try and replicate Victor’s scientific method. All the while, the mayor’s niece, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), is Victor’s only human kindred spirit who helps him navigate all of the obstacles that would threaten the newly resurrected Sparky.
Oddly enough, a lot of this extra material in the new story takes away from the main focus of Victor and his dog; so if there’s anything wrong with this film at all, it would be the space-filling moments spent on characters other than Sparky in favor of other creatures (including some, um, reanimated Sea Monkeys) that are plenty entertaining, but they’re not the all-important doggie. Again, this is a minor distraction compared to the whole.
Most kids (except the youngest tots) should not be frightened by this movie if they like spooky, Halloweenish things in general. It’s a cute film that restores the Burton combination of quirky and macabre (with characters who visually and thematically feel right at home in Burton’s collective house of weirdos) without delving into levels of obnoxiousness. Frankenweenie is downright lovable even for a movie about a dying pet, and (for fans of the original) rest assured that the little Bride of Frankenstein allusion is still there too. Overall, the experience of watching this film conjures up sheer joy mixed with mild melancholy. In Frankenweenie, Burton has not only resurrected man’s best friend, but he’s also brought many aspects of his former works back to life. Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Nightmare Before Christmas, and The Corpse Bride are all very much alive in this movie. In short, Burton has resurrected his career.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.