After Dark Shadows missed the mark by so much, it’s a relief to be able to say that Frankenweenie is vintage Tim Burton.
The setup is simple enough – a boy’s dog is run over and the boy, named Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan, I Am Legend, Charlie St. Cloud) – inspired by a science class revelation about how the body is essentially an electric circuit – brings his dog, Sparky, back to life. Weirdness and hilarity ensue.
Frankenweenie is based on director Tim Burton’s live-action short film of the same name, but with some expanded character detail and an added arc about what happens when Victor’s secret becomes not so secret.
The movie opens with young Victor screening a homemade monster movie – which is rather cleverly imagined – to his parents, voiced by Martin Short (Damages, Madagascar 3) and Catherine O’Hara (For Your Consideration, Temple Grandin). His movie’s hero is his beloved dog, Sparky.
We then meet his grumpy next door neighbor and mayor of New Holland, Mr. Burgemeister (also Short) and his niece, Elsa (Winona Ryder, Star Trek, Black Swan), as well as his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, Ed wood, The Majestic), who seems to be based on Vincent Price (physically) and Bela Lugosi (vocally) – and several of his classmates, including (but not limited to) Weird Girl (O’Hara again), the overweight Bob (Robert Capron, The Three Stooges), and Asian science wiz, Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao, Prison Break, 24).
The first half of Frankenweenie is structured around Victor and the way he deals with Sparky’s death and the second half is built around what happens when Victor’s classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer, The Middle) discovers what he’s done then let’s the secret slip out.
Ominously funny are Weird Girl and her cat, Mr. Whiskers – a dyspeptic feline given to prophetic dreams, the subjects of which are revealed in one of the best running poop jokes ever (and no, I might have phrased that differently, but why would I?). Mr. Whiskers also plays a major role in the second half of the movie.
The first half of the movie is a riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (as was Burton’s short) and is smart, creepy and funny. The second half opens up to riff on virtually every major movie monster (and a few classic minor ones) that lead to the expected villagers, pitchforks and torches sequences – though they take some unexpected turns.
Not all the monster riffs are singular, either. One – which I think of as Gremlins From The Black Lagoon – not only melds two classic types, but also references a third (Ghoulies). On the other hand, the riff on Japanese kaiju (giant monster movies) relies on one particular movie series – and not the one you might expect.
John August’s script (based on the short by Burton, story by Burton and Leonard Ripps) is filled with cool references, but works because it develops the main characters well, and spins horror/monster movie stereotypes in oddly appropriate ways. Burton’s direction allows for the character beats, action sequences and homages/quotes/references to flow naturally.
The 3D is superb and, while there are some fun moments where things explode off the screen into the audience’s faces, works with the film’s exquisite black and white cinematography to create a creepily lovely mood. The stop-motion animation is fluid and so mind-bogglingly good that we buy into the film without a moment’s hesitation.
At the screening I attended, the kids in the audience didn’t seem to care – or even notice – that Frankenweenie was in black and white. They were hooked from the start and, though there are all kinds of things to keep the adults involved, there was plenty for them to enjoy – and they did.
Frankenweenie is the best Tim Burton film in several years – and it’s really nice to have him back on form. I think we can now forgive him for Dark Shadows – Frankenweenie is great!
Final Grade: A