DIR: Tim Burton • WRI: John August • PRO: Allison Abbate, Tim Burton • DOP: Peter Sorg • Chris Lebenzon Mark Solomon • DES: Rick Heinrichs • CAST: Martin Landau, Christopher Lee, Winona Ryder
Before Scissorhands, before Beetlejuice, before Pee-wee, there was Frankenweenie. Tim Burton’s 1984 short film about a reanimated dog initially soured the professional relationship between the director and Disney, but nearly three decades on they’ve long since kissed and made up. They’ve teamed up again – after the baffling commercial success of Alice in Wonderland– to produce this feature-length stop-motion remake of Burton’s early film.Burton has never been guilty of disguising his gothic and B-Movie influences, but only rarely has he channelled them this explicitly. Frankenweenieplays like an eccentric yet affectionate satire of Frankenstein. Indeed, the protagonist of the film is a boy named Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan). After his dog Sparky is killed by a car, the young scientist is devastated. Inspired by his creepy but motivational new teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor manages to reanimate Sparky by creating an elaborate electrically charged experiment in his attic. Barring the occasional limb falling off and the need for an occasional recharge at the mains, Sparky is as good as new. While Victor tries to keep Sparky’s resurrection secret, it isn’t long before the kids at school get wind of the development.The film’s wide-eyed, stop-motion style will draw inevitable comparisons with The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. In many ways, though, it’s more of a companion piece with Ed Wood (arguably Burton’s masterpiece). Aesthetically, the comparison is most obvious – they both have crystal clear black & white cinematography, and they’re equally well-versed in the style and iconography of mid twentieth century low-budget horror films.Almost everything here is satirising or celebrating the horror genre. Characters are based on the stars and icons of Universal and Hammer – from a next-door neighbour named Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) to Landau’s enthusiastic channelling of Vincent Price. The film is dotted with references both obvious and subtle, including a great Bride of Frankenstein joke and Christopher Lee’s real-life Horror of Dracula appearing on television. Unlike the cheap pop-culture gags of a Shrek film, they’re all organically weaved into the story. It all makes for a charming homage, and one that adult audiences familiar with the reference will thoroughly appreciate.
Not to say young audiences will be completely alienated – it has an accessible story, is just the right amount of scary and is littered with quirky characters and sight gags. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s most loyal supporters are older. A surprising anti-Creationism / pro-science subtext ensures the film’s underlying morals are admirable too.
There’s a lot to fit into a mere eighty minutes, and unfortunately some aspects do suffer as a result. There are far too many characters, and some potentially fruitful subplots are curiously underexplored. The film’s manic third-act piles on the B-Movie satire and cameos – let’s just say a Japanese character’s presence has a rewarding pay-off – but the action-packed climax feels somewhat less satisfying than what came before. There’s also a hint that the film might conclude on a suitably bittersweet note. Disney’s presence, however, inevitably ensures everything is wrapped up predictably.