Tim Burton has returned to familiar turf in Frankenweenie. That will come as good news to some fans and bad news to others, who may feel that he’s gone to the same well once too often. I enjoyed this feature-length remake of his 1984 short, even though the seams show. Whether or not you should take your kids is a decision only a parent can make, based on how well your child is attuned to macabre humor and if he or she can handle the death of a beloved pet onscreen.
Make no mistake: the central story is not played for laughs. An odd little boy whose only friend is his dog Sparky is disconsolate when a car runs over the animal…so he uses his scientific savvy to figure out a way to resuscitate the creature. Little does he dream that this will open a Pandora’s Box of trouble.
The young hero of Frankenweenie is actually named Victor Frankenstein, which is not the last time Burton and his frequent screenwriting partner John August make reference to classic horror movies. One of the reasons I’m partial to this black & white film, beautifully designed by another longtime Burton colleague, Rick Heinrichs, is that it’s an homage to those gothic horror classics. (If nothing else, this movie provides a perfect cue for you to share Bride of Frankenstein with your family.) And how can any film buff dismiss a brand-new animated feature where the science teacher looks like Vincent Price?
Burton has loved stop-motion animation since his earliest attempts at filmmaking as an adolescent. This latest endeavor is a big improvement over Corpse Bride in a number of ways. I found the animation in that 2005 release to be too “perfect”—so smooth that it might as well have been CGI. I don’t know if he and his team approached this film any differently, but the results have a pleasing, hand-made quality.
The voice work is top-notch, and Charlie Tahan as Victor is supported by a colorful cast, including Martin Landau as the eerie, Eastern European science teacher and Winona Ryder as a Goth girl-next-door. Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short do triple duty, filling several vocal roles each.
If you remember the original Frankenweenie, it will be fairly obvious where Burton and August had to pad the original screenplay with new characters and subplots, but I am forgiving of this because the tone of the movie is consistent and, where the protagonist is concerned, surprisingly sweet. (Could parenthood be affecting both the writer and director?)
Frankenweenie may be dark and creepy but it isn’t cynical; I think that’s what appealed to me most of all.