I was sick of Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie before I ever saw it. The trailer was attached to nearly every film I saw in theaters over the summer, driving it into my head to the point that I would change the television channel whenever the trailer popped up during commercial breaks. I’m not traditionally a huge Burton fan, though I certainly enjoy films like 1989’s Batman and 1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (story by Burton, also produced by him, but directed by Henry Selick), and this just wasn’t a film that was on my must-see list. With the approach of the Academy Awards, though, and with Frankenweenie‘s nomination for Best Animated Feature, I finally got a hold of a copy of the film on Blu-Ray and watched through…and I was impressed.
Frankenweenie is based on the live-action short film of the same name from 1984, also directed by Burton, and is about a boy (Charlie Tahan) whose only friend is his dog, Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car and killed, the boy is understandably devastated…oh, and I forgot to mention that the boy’s name is Victor Frankenstein (hint hint). Victor sets out to bring his beloved best friend back to life and succeeds. Everything is right with the world until the word gets out that Victor has brought back his dog from the dead, and, suddenly, everyone wants in on it. Chaos ensues!
The close bond shared between Victor and Sparky is made very clear from the start of the film, making Sparky’s untimely death all the more devastating, but it also makes it that much rewarding when Victor succeeds in bringing him back to life. Victor’s character arc is a strong one, as he realizes that re-animating the dead is not necessarily the best option and that sometimes it is necessary to let go of the ones that you love – a lesson that we all learn at some point in our lives, whether it’s with a pet or with a friend or family member. Themes such as the strength of friendship and love, persistence, the implications of science, letting go, and family expectation are all addressed throughout the film, making it a sort of educational experience without it ever feeling like preaching.
Where Frankenweenie succeeds the most, however, is in its references to classic horror films – plus a reference to Burgermeister Meisterburger from the 1970 stop-motion Rankin/Bass film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. While watching, I found references or allusions to the following horror films or actors: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Vincent Price, Jurassic Park, Gremlins, Dracula, Psycho and Godzilla…and I know that there have to be even more than that; I’m not as well-versed in classic horror films as I would like to be. It’s really quite impressive to see so many films referenced in one.
One of the most interesting aspects of this movie is that it is presented in black and white, likening itself back to the typical horror films found in the 1930s-1950s. The lack of color gives the classic sort of “Burton-esque” feel a refreshing new twist, deviating from the vibrant colors and extravagant set designs from more recent Burton films such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland. The stop-motion animation is seamless, never feeling like a stop-motion film.
I was quite prepared to dislike this film…it just didn’t seem to be my cup of tea, but Frankenweenie impresses on both technical and narrative grounds. The voice acting (from actors such as Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, and Catherine O’Hara) is top-notch throughout, and the story is both endearing and slightly disturbing. In my opinion, this is Burton’s best film in some time. Even Danny Elfman’s score is refreshing atypical of his usual work, managing to be more intimate than bombastic (for once). Will Frankenweenie win the Academy Award? It might…but we’ll see.
Rating: 4.5 (out of 5)
MPAA: PG-13 – for thematic elements, scary images and action
February 20th, 2013 at 1:10 pm
Nice write up. I really enjoyed Frankenweenie and agree with you that it’s Burton’s best in a while. For me though the Oscar winner is Wreck-It Ralph with Brave coming a close second – although it’s sharply divided viewers I felt its feminist edge made a refreshing move for animated features.
February 21st, 2013 at 2:48 am
First of all, I should say thank you for all of the comments! I’m glad to know that someone out there is enjoying what I’m writing!
As for Brave, I didn’t like it too much, though it was more of a failure of expectation than anything else. I felt like the final film wasn’t what was promised by what we saw in the trailers, and I didn’t think that the title fit very well. “Fate” would have been much more suitable, in my opinion.
Wreck-It Ralph is also my personal preference for this Oscar, but I think that Frankenweenie is more likely to win. The black and white aspect is a bit of a novelty, just as it was for last year’s The Artist, and it was a bit better received by critics than Ralph was.
February 21st, 2013 at 1:39 am
[…] I suppose I can start with the good things…I thought that the animation is well-done and appropriately grotesque. I like that character design differs from person to person (i.e. facial structure, body shape, etc.), rather than all the characters essentially having the same build with only slight variations. The stop-motion in this film is done quite well also, though the style of it is certainly different from the other Academy Award-nominated film, Frankenweenie (read my review here). […]
February 22nd, 2013 at 2:21 pm
The odd part about this is that I was completely the opposite. To nearly everything you said. Which I suppose speaks to why I enjoyed “Norman” and absolutely despied “Frankenweenie” (not to mention “Wreck-It Ralph”).
To me, it was rather easy to tell that this was based on a short film and it reaked of Burton wanting to quickly get out of his contract with Disney. The film was meandering in so many spots and nearly every character was threadbare in personality (sans Sparky and the science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski). Everybody was quirky, but with no other reason than to just . . . be quirky, Tim Burton-esque weird. At least, back in his heyday, Burton’s characters had a reason to be oddballs.
There’s a lot of bizarre contradictions in the film, especially when it comes to the last act, with Victor’s classmates all bringing their pets back to life; Rzykruski essentially tells Victor that love was the variable, and that Victor’s classmates were focused on selfish reasons for bringing their pets back. But they all seem to be rather traumatized when each of their pets die, and all of *their* pets die for good, with nobody expressing much sympathy (including the rather traumatizing death of the Weird Girl’s cat, Mr. Whiskers). And while I loved Sparky, the finale of bringing him back kind of took out any poignancy the film might’ve had. For Victor to, perhaps, get a new dog and start making friends with his neighbor, Elsa (which the film sets up but blatantly does not pay off) would have been more nicely tied up, and everyone would’ve actually learned something.
I also could NOT get over the Asian stereotype with Toshiaki. I mean . . . really? The film may be a throwback to old B-movies, apparently wanting to throw in a mix of the Japanese Kaiju cinema of that era into the mix, but Burton took it a bit too far, in my opinion.
Speaking of, cramming references to horror films in your horror film just so the audience can go “Tee-hee, I know that film” isn’t exactly clever, in my opinion. It may make for a fun game, but those references also have to be relevant to the plot. This movie is a rather unharmonious amalgam of horror references, all crammed in just to have them, rather than clever ones that drive the plot and build the world.
At the core is a story of a boy and his dog, and Sparky really was the best character in the film; I would’ve been much more taken if the entire thing had just spent time with him and a better-developed Victor. But, then, that’s why this was a short film first.