by Steve Habrat
In the wake of his stellar 2007 musical Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Tim Burton churned out two horribly inconsistent remakes that were typical exercises in pricey style over script substance. Alice in Wonderland found Disney filling each frame with sugary 3D effects and sprawling CGI landscapes that looked like it was inspired by Burton rather than actually crafted by him. The film was a disaster but I pointed my blame more at Disney than Burton. This summer’s Dark Shadows remake was another catastrophe that suggested that maybe Burton did deserve some of the blame for these movies flying wildly off their gothic tracks. Needless to say, I was a bit worried going in to Frankenweenie, the third horror-themed kiddie flick of the late summer and early fall (the other two being ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania). Well, after two massive duds, Mr. Burton is finally on the right track again and firing on all creative cylinders. In fact, I’d go so far to say that Frankenweenie ranks near the top as one of Burton’s strongest films in his vault. While some children and adults may be turned off due to the black and white presentation of the film and the morbid subject matter, Frankenweenie thrills, chills, and even tickles movie buffs with a strong affection for the classic Universal monsters, 40’s and 50’s B-movies, and Hammer horror offerings. Plus, it truly is difficult to resist a story about a boy and his undead pup.
Frankenweenie ushers us into the small town of New Holland, where we meet young outsider Victor Frankenstein (Voiced by Charlie Tahan), a lanky amateur filmmaker and brilliant scientist who adores his feisty bull terrier Sparky. Victor’s parents, Edward (Voiced by Martin Short) and Susan (Voiced by Catherine O’Hara), encourage Victor to step out of his comfort zone and join the baseball team at school. During his first game, the Frankenstein’s bring Spark to watch Victor play, but after he knocks the ball out of the park, Sparky chases after the ball and is hit by a car. Victor is devastated by the loss but his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Voiced by Martin Landau) inadvertently gives Victor the idea of using electricity to bring Spark back from the dead. Confident he can pull off the experiment, Victor rushes out to dig up his four-legged friend and reanimate him as quickly as possible. Determined to keep his experiment a secret, Victor is soon found out by fellow outsider Edgar “E” Gore (Voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who blackmails Victor into teaching him how to reanimate deceased pets for the science fair. Meanwhile, the cranky New Holland mayor, Mr. Bergermeister (Voiced by Martin Short) suspects that Victor is up to something strange in his attic laboratory. As more and more dead pets are unleashed on the town, Victor turns to his crush and next-door neighbor, Elsa van Helsing (Voiced by Winona Ryder), for help from the angry mobs who wish to send these abominations of science back to the grave.
With Burton in complete control of his vision and Disney doing very little to screw it up, he cleverly builds upon his 1984 short film of the same name. Frankenweenie is a ghoulish and cobwebbed celebration of classic monsters and dated creature features that inspired Burton as a young boy. I was consistently astonished the way that Burton works references to Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, The Bride of Frankenstein, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon into Frankenweenie and figures out a way to make all these films flow together without stretching it. These references absolutely hilarious, that is if you are in on the jokes and have seen the movies. If the Universal monsters weren’t enough, Burton also tosses in Godzilla, Vincent Price, and Hammer’s crown jewel Horror of Dracula just to let you know he loves those movies too. You may also catch a whiff of Edward Scissorhands with the overall look of New Holland and there is even a Nightmare Before Christmas aura in the pet cemetery where the adorable Sparky is buried. Frankenweenie also dares to be a little creepy in places, which was incredibly impressive considering most straightforward horror films can’t even muster an effective jump scare.
And then we have the wonderfully voiced and illustrated characters, all who despite being made of clay and plastic, jump to life in incredible ways. I absolutely loved the loner Victor and I could relate to his sadness over the loss of a beloved pet. I had to have both of my dogs put down in the same year and it was absolutely devastating. I just wanted to reach through the screen and hug the little guy. Then we have Sparky, the playful pup who enjoys passing a ball under his backyard fence to Elsa’s poodle, Persephone. I grinned ear to ear when she sniffed Sparky’s bolts and received a shock that left two white streaks that have her looking like the Bride of Frankenstein. While the adults are all fairly straightforward (Short and O’Hara voice stereotypical concerned yet hilariously oblivious parents), the kids are the real treat. The grave and monotone Nassor (Voiced by Short) will grab laughs as he commands his mummified Colossus to crawl from its tomb (wait until you get a look a Colossus) and Weird Girl (Voiced by O’Hara) is creepy fun as she walks around bug-eyed with her cat curled up in her arms. The chunky Bob (Voiced by Robert Capron) and the scheming Toshiaki (Voiced by James Hiroyuki Liao) hilariously compete with Victor and the results are as macabre as you can imagine. Ryder is appropriately mopey as Elsa, who I wish we would have seen more of and Landau purrs through his work as Vincent Price-esque science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who appears to have just rolled out of his grave.
While it is truly depressing that Adam Sandler’s limp Hotel Transylvania beat out Frankenweenie at the box office, it was really hard to see families flocking to a film like this. This is pretty bizarre territory but I sincerely hope that this finds an afterlife on Blu-ray, which I suspect it will, especially with the Hot Topic crowd who go bonkers for Jack Skellington. Personally, I feel like Frankenweenie was more appropriate for the fall/Halloween season as it does offer more than a few creepy moments that are sure to raise the hair on your arms. For the first time in quite a while, it seems like Burton is working from the heart rather than just rolling up his sleeves for a paycheck. I never got the feeling like he was bored with the material or under pressure from the studio, which was a relief. I absolutely loved the monsters-run-amok ending and I can honestly say it was much more thrilling than anything found in Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. And then there is the overwhelming emotion that takes hold in certain places, something that many can relate to, especially if they have lost a pet. It may be a small effort but it’s a passion project that pays off. While I loved the weird and wacky ParaNorman, I think I have to go with the heartwarming Frankenweenie as the best animated film of the year.