Tim Burton’s latest foray into stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie, is being labeled a “remake.” But I don’t think that label is particularly accurate or particularly fair to the film, considering the scarlet letter the term “remake” has earned itself in the last ten years. Sure, Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s adaptation of a short film Tim Burton already made called Frankenweenie. But do people call George Lucas’ THX 1138 a remake of Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB? Burton made the original Frankenweenie in 1984 while working at Disney. The 30-minute film, Burton’s first real stab at live action, was intended to be a companion piece for a re-release of Pinocchio, but Disney was disturbed by the finished product, which they felt was far too scary for children. So they shelved it and fired Burton (the short eventually became available as a special feature on the Nightmare Before Christmas DVD). Of course, since 1984 Burton has become an A-list director and his disturbingness a safe, standardized and popular brand. Now Disney is more than ready for Frankenweenie and its spooky ways. In 3-D, no less.
Tim Burton’s previous stop-motion film, Corpse Bride, was pretty forgettable. I can’t even insult it properly because I have forgotten it so completely. That film left me feeling that without Nightmare Before Christmas‘ director Henry Selick by his side, maybe Burton should just stay away from stop motion. But compared with the live action films Burton has been making in recent years, Frankenweenie now has me feeling that maybe he should in fact stick with the clay figures (2001’s Monkeybone left me with a similar feeling about Selick). Looking at the film dispassionately, Frankenweenie is a bit of a trifle itself. It lacks the electric (pun intended) inspiration Nightmare had. But that isn’t really saying anything, considering that Nightmare has proven to be one of the most enduring and beloved motion pictures of the past twenty years. Frankenweenie is trifle, but it is an entirely fun trifle.
The film tells a revamped story of scientist Victor Frankenstein, here a present-day, friendless and intelligent suburban boy, whose life is turned upside down when he accidentally causes the death of his trusty dog, Sparky. Inspired by the lessons of his science teacher, Victor digs up Sparky’s corpse and brings the pooch back to life in his family’s attic. Victor tries to hide Sparky from the world, but eventually both the dog and word of Victor’s mad-science miracle get out.
There is very little in the way of negative criticism I can lob at Frankenweenie beyond the trifle comment. It is slow-paced, which is a little odd considering it is animated (that slow pacing meant extra money and extra man-hours). But the pacing evenly matches the film’s low-impact tone. At first I found this a major drawback. Yet, as the film wore on, I kind of got into it. Frankenweenie will make you keenly aware of how kinetic most animated films are. I’m not saying being kinetic is bad (it isn’t), but as with anything, sometimes a change of speed feels nice. And given how crassly loud and boorish Burton’s style has become, it is also nice to see him dip back into something gentler and sweeter and sincere. Frankenweenie is very sweet. And very sincere.
Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) isn’t a great hero. His reserved attitude is part of what gives the film its low-impact tone, especially right at the beginning. After the first few scenes you can be forgiven for assuming you just wasted your money on a wet turd. Burton’s overall intentions for Frankenweenie don’t make themselves clear until Victor attends school and meets his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). When Landau’s voice enters the film, things suddenly kick into gear. Mr. Rzykruski’s first scene, in which he explains to his class how lightning works in the most intense way imaginable, is the best scene in the film. Landau, affecting a fabulous Eastern European accent, manages to chew the scenery to an impressive degree, considering he was standing alone in a recording booth for his performance. His handful of scenes remind you what a true talent Landau is (and will make you wish he did more voice work), and Rzykruski’s too-early exit from the film is unfortunately noticeable. Fortunately, there are others left behind to help carry the weight that Victor can’t. The film’s other winning element also appears during that first classroom scene: the other students. During the film’s opening scenes, I was disappointed with how weird Victor and his family looked — standard Burton head shapes, sunken eyes and black stringy hair (Victor is just a younger version of the hero from Corpse Bride). Sparky looks kinda sickly and creepy even before he is undead. Why make the normal characters look so odd? Well, I hadn’t realized just how ridiculous and freaky the ridiculous and freaky characters were going to look. I had mistakenly assumed that Victor was going to be the weird kid at school. But Victor’s class is populated with an assortment of mad scientists even more mad than Victor. The original Frankenweenie short was simply the tale of Victor and Sparky. The feature adaptation is the tale of the whole town of New Amsterdam (which is overly obsessed with windmills and its Dutch heritage). And the town is far stranger and darker than Victor.
In that first classroom scene, listening to these creepy kids speculate with macabre interest on just why their town is so weird – built on an Indian burial ground maybe? – made me realize I didn’t have the film figured out at all yet. After a moseying, too-casual opening, Frankenweenie snowballs as it progresses, in both story and energy. As Victor’s classmates become more and more involved in the story – particularly Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), an Igor-esque hunchback with long tangled fingers, who desperately wants to be Victor’s partner at the Science Fair – things just get more and more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, the backbone of this film is naturally the time-tested tale of a boy and his dog. Sparky is adorable in the most expected Burton-y way. Sparky laps up water, which then leaks out his seams. His tail becomes detached when he wags it too enthusiastically. And he cluelessly chases the flies that buzz around his rotting body. If you don’t think Sparky is cute and lovable, the movie likely can’t work on you. But for me this was all a given. I’m a sucker for cute dogs. Burton would have had to really shit the bed in this department for me to withdraw from it. So I have hard time applauding the achievement too much. It is in his treatment of the other kids where Burton shines with his old charm. After Landau, the film’s biggest scene stealer is the eery white cat owned by Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara), who only has one saucer-eyed facial expression and whose litter-box leavings can predict the future. Every time that cat was on screen, I laughed.
Anyone familiar with the Frankenstein’s Monster films (or even just films/cartoons parodying those films) will know where certain elements of the story are heading. Obviously the black beehived poodle that Sparky likes will get a white streak in that beehive at some point. Obviously some villagers are going to chase Sparky into the town’s giant windmill. But what makes Frankenweenie worthy of its adaptation from the 1984 short, is the completely left-field turn it takes in its final act. I had originally planned on only alluding to these elements, but Disney’s ad campaign has already thoroughly blown the surprise. So be it. Frankenweenie isn’t just a Frankenstein’s Monster film. Burton exercises all his Universal monster predilections this time around. And then some. Invisible Man. Wolf Man. Dracula. The Mummy. Even Godzilla for good measure. The homage train goes off the rails. I won’t say how or why, but things turn into an all-out monsterpalooza.
Admittedly, there is not a lot here for adults who aren’t able to access their inner child. Our hero isn’t that interesting, and our villain, the Mayor, isn’t either (he barely qualifies as a villain). While I enjoyed that the film kicks things up a big notch towards the end, if you compare the structure to the similar Edward Scissorhands, you can see how weak the rising tension actually is. But this is a wonderful kids film, for a certain kind of kid — the kind of kid that I was. Like Nightmare, this is a kids film for kids who like spooky things on a legitimate level. Burton doesn’t pull his macabre punches (we see Victor dig up Sparky’s grave, for example), and when the new monsters hit town, things even get a little scary. In a lot of ways, this is the most authentic Tim Burton movie that Tim Burton has made in a long, long time. Fittingly, it has a very solid score by Danny Elfman too. It also features live-action footage of Christopher Lee. That doesn’t really make the film better in any way, but hey, cramming Lee into something is never a bad thing. Bottom line, if you have the kind of kid who wants to be smeared in blood or wear fangs on Halloween instead of dressing as Spongebob, this could be their favorite film of the year. It is the Cabin in the Woods for 9-year-olds.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars