Frankenweenie tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a boy infatuated with two things in life: science, and his pet dog, Sparky. With a big science fair coming up, Victor is working on big things, but his parents (voices of Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) would rather see him on the baseball field with other boys. Victor indulges his parents and their misplaced wishes, but the result of said “experiment” is the tragic demise of poor Sparky.
However, Victor is a man of science and cannot simply accept the loss of his canine companion – not when he has the means of mind to resurrect him from the dead. But life, death and science are a combustible concoction, and when word gets out of Victor’s feat, it catalyzes a chain reaction of consequences that could spell nightmarish doom for the town of New Holland.
Frankenweenie is the latest film from Tim Burton (based on a short film he co-wrote and directed in 1984), and in my opinion it is his best film in years – far above and beyond his recent live-action work (Dark Shadows, Alice In Wonderland). The difference isn’t so much in technique, but rather in soul: Frankenweenie has an actual beating heart and soul to it, and Burton’s passion for the material shows through, the entire time. At its core the simple story of a boy and his dog, Burton builds a unique (but very Burton-esque) and immersive 3D world around that strong center, and populates it with fun characters and warm Gothic humor.
In terms of spirit, the film recaptures the magic of ’80s-era Burton films like Beetlejuice – a perfect balance of dark humor and twisted imagination. Visually, the movie looks like a cross between Edward Scissorhands (a satirical vision of 1950s-era American culture); Corpse Bride (stop-motion animation using elongated, Gothic-style figures); with ’50s-era sketch comedy thrown in for good measure, resulting in something that is distinctly Burton, but genuinely fun and engaging, as well.
The script – by frequent Burton collaborator John August (Big Fish, Corpse Bride) – is equally as fun and riffs on a vast multitude of classic horror films, comedic acts (Abbot and Costello), in addition to some modern sci-fi and/or horror flicks. The characters (many of whom are also homages to classic movie characters or personalities) are lively, unique and often hilarious, while the overall direction of the film is as technically sound and wonderfully imaginative as Tim Burton is at his best.
The combination of ’50s-era black and white filmmaking, Tim Burton imagination and design, and the added 3D dimension is strangely harmonious in its eclecticness; Frankenweenie truly looks and feels like its own kind of animal, which is a refreshing distinction from the line of cookie-cut CGI animated features we’re getting each year. From visual gags, to wordplay, to insider jokes based on cinematic allusion and homages, the level of humor in the film is surprisingly sharp and witty – in some ways aimed more at cinephiles than impressionable young children (though the movie is still perfectly appropriate for younger kids).
Voices provided by the human cast (many of them former Burton collaborators) are pretty impeccable. Young Charlie Tahan is not a stretch as a little boy with childlike concerns; Martin Short (Mars Attacks!) and Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice) aren’t that impressive as Victor’s parents, but get to flex some of their true talent voicing supporting characters like the scene-stealing “Weird Girl,” or the Vincent Price-spoofing “Nassor.” Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice) is more of an Easter egg treat for Burton fans than a memorable voice performer, but Martin Landau (Ed Wood) kills it dead as Mr. Rzykruski, Victor’s stern Russian science teacher who has poor grip on the finer points of English phrasing.
While fairly tight in its execution, Frankenweenie does go a bit over-the-top in its third act, staging an unabashed homage to classic movie monster films that – while amusing – lands on the side of hollow blockbuster spectacle, rather than sticking closer to the more focused emotional through line that Burton weaves up until that point. The ending of the film is also a bit more saccharine than it should be, sacrificing poignant life lessons (which it teases for all of a second) for a conclusion that’s much more ‘happy Hollywood’ in nature. Regardless of those nitpicks, Frankenweenie is a welcome return to form for Burton, and is bonafide good time at the movies for the old, young, and everybody in between.
Frankenweenie is now playing in 3D and 2D and IMAX 3D theaters. It is Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action.