If you’ve always thought Tim Burton was weird, well … chances are good that his latest animated film Frankenweenie won’t change that.
It’s filled with oddball characters, nearly all of whom have those same round heads and toothpick legs you’ve seen in films like Corpse Bride, wide eyes that sometimes make them look dead inside, and a decided lack of cuteness. It’s got a macabre sense of humor. It’s told in stop-motion. And as if that’s not enough to convince you of its offbeat sensibility, it’s an animated film that’s been made in black and white.
But, actually, dismissing Frankenweenie as just a weird film is really selling it short. In fact, this latest big-screen tale is Burton’s sweetest big-screen release since Big Fish. It’s an affectionate tribute to the filmmaker’s childhood, and all the monster movies he (and we) grew up loving.
A remake of a live-action short film Burton made in 1984, Frankenweenie tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a friendless young boy whose dog (Sparky, natch) dies. Heartbroken, he takes the words of his science teacher (a Vincent Price lookalike given voice by Martin Landau) literally, and resurrects the dog with a whole lot of lightning and electricity.
In 1984, when Burton made his original film, Disney fired him because they thought it was too intense for kids. This remake isn’t exactly a young-kids movie either, but those children (of all ages) who can handle some scary elements will find lots of joy here.
Burton pays homage to such films as Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, Godzilla, and even Gremlins and Jurassic Park, and though sometimes the gags are expected — look out for the giant lizard, Toshiaki! — the animation helps make it all more fun.
Heck, Winona Ryder provides the voice for Elsa Van Helsing, and Burton’s team has given her a similar look to the one Ryder had in Beetlejuice.
Oh, and as if that’s not enough, there’s even an amusing scene at the beginning in which Burton recreates one of those handmade super-8 films he used to make, using toys, pets, action figures, and only the limits of his imagination. Anyone who’s seen Ed Wood will get a nice chuckle from this too.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that you don’t need to see Frankenweenie in 3D or IMAX to fully appreciate it. In fact, given the film’s roots, it would be more appropriate if you went the standard 2D route.
The film doesn’t always rise to the same level of quality as the visual inventiveness. For one thing, there’s not the same level of character development as there might be in, say, a Pixar film, so the gags and humor here are not in the service of the characters as much as they are in the service of the animation.
But in spite of that, Frankenweenie still feels like a horror movie with real heart. You can see and feel Burton’s childhood memories all over it.
Disney may have let him go for the first version of the film, but it has learned the error of its ways and has now let Burton make what may be the best possible version of his story.
Hooray for second chances, whether you’re a dog, a filmmaker, or a movie company.
I’m giving Frankenweenie a B+.