“Frankenweenie” is Tim Burton’s reimagining of a short film he made back in 1984. The original was in live action, but now he’s re-envisioned it as a stop motion animated film in the vein of “Corpse Bride” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. The result is a delightful and charming animated feature that serves as a love letter to old school horror films.
The story follows a young boy named Victor Frankenstein, who spends most of his time alone making movies on his camcorder. His only friend in the world is his dog Sparky, and his parents think it’ll be good for him to plays sports and make friends. During a baseball game, Sparky gets excited and runs off after the ball where he’s struck by a car. Naturally, Victor is devastated and can’t deal with the loss. Inspired by the new and intense science teacher (who sounds like Martin Landau and looks a lot like Vincent Price), he decides to play god and reanimate his best friend.
There’s a lot to appreciate in this movie, and the most striking being the high quality animation. It’s among the best stop motion to date, yet clearly distinguishes itself from the typical CG fare. The unusual and intriguing gothic character designs are brought to life in a whole new way because of this. Everyone one in the small suburban town of New Holland is a character, both in design and personality. There’s the science obsessed teacher, the Burgermeister mayor (a nod to Burgermeister Meisterburger from the Rankin/Bass “Santa Claus is Comin' to Town”), and the oddest collection of students ever assembled in a classroom, including a boy who looks an awful lot like Boris Karloff. There are a bunch of fun visual references to classic horror films like “Dracula”, “The Mummy”, “Frankenstein”, and even some more obscure like the surprising “Gamera” appearance. The crisp black and white suits the horror references and compliments the overall visual style.
For the most part, the voice acting is very good; sporting a cast including Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder, but it’s the voice of Victor who’s among the weakest. Charlie Tahan sounds very stiff and awkward at times, but even without this, Victor is one of the least interesting characters in the story. He’s very shy and reactionary, responding to events instead of being at the heart of them.
As is to be expected from a Tim Burton film, the last quarter devolves into a large action set piece. While somewhat entertaining (I particularly enjoyed the visual handling of the “Gamera” turtle), it runs a bit long and doesn’t feel necessary. Another common feature of a Tim Burton animated movie is the Danny Elfman soundtrack and this is unmistakably one of their collaborations. The music is by no means bad, but it’s your typical Danny Elfman accompaniment. It’s decent, but familiar and not particularly memorable.
Something I found especially interesting in this movie is in regards to the ending and the movie’s overall themes. Despite the obvious love and affection for classic Hollywood horror, “Frankenweenie” is almost the anti-Frankenstein in terms of its message. In the 1931 film, the message centered on the evils of a scientist playing god. It ends in tragic disaster, and Dr. Frankenstein learns his lesson at a bitter cost. Here however, it’s not so much an evil to play god, since science is neither good nor bad. The quest for knowledge is presented as an inherent good, it’s only in the way people use their findings that it can go either way. What Victor discovers with his dog is a good thing for him, yet in the hands of other children it becomes a nightmare. It’s a surprisingly different stance and one that even surpasses the finality of death, of which Victor never learns to cope with. If anything, he learns that he doesn’t have to.
Was it worthwhile for Tim Burton to remake an old short into a stop motion feature? Absolutely. He took a fun concept and breathed new life into it with stunning animation. Aesthetically, this is an incredible movie and one that stands miles apart from its peers. It’s skews a bit light with its themes, but it’s nevertheless an interesting and amusing movie that any movie buff with a soft spot for classic and B-level horror films will enjoy.