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