IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 87 mins
REVIEWED DY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Young filmmaker and scientist Victor Frankenstein lives with his parents and his dog Sparky [who stars in Victor’s homemade movies] in the quiet town of New Holland.Victor’s father is very concerned about his son’s isolation and encourages him to take up baseball and make achievements outside of science. At his first game, Victor hits a home run, and Sparky, pursuing the ball, is subsequently killed by a car. Inspired by a demonstration of the effect of electricity on dead frogs, a depressed Victor digs up Sparky’s corpse, creates a makeshift laboratory in the attic and successfully reanimates Sparky with lightning……
I think it’s fair to say that Tim Burton has lost his touch somewhat with his last two efforts being considerable disappointments, so I was awaiting his return to the world of stop motion animation with some trepidation. The Nightmare Before Christmas [which of course was actually directed by Henry Selick though is still a Burton film through and through] and The Corpse Bride are wonderful films and Frankenweenie actually had a previous incarnation which was very good indeed. That previous incarnation was of course Burton’s 1984 live action short film of the same title which he made for Disney [he started off as an animator there and actually did some animation on The Fox And The Hound] only for it to be roundly rejected. Well, the new Frankenweenie is definitely a return to form for Burton. It’s not a total success, and certainly not up there with his masterpieces like Edward Scisssorhands and Big Fish, but a huge leap in the right direction and it’s a shame that it seems to be disappointing at the box office when vastly inferior fare like Hotel Transylvania are cleaning up.
Then again, Burton was maybe asking for trouble by filming it in black and white. Kids might, though it sadly seems to be less and less these days, check out a black and white movie on TV or on a DVD owned by their parents, but as a trip to the cinema with friends? Of course you could say that Frankenweenie is not really a kid’s film at all. I have a feeling that it will be partially doomed by being stuck in the middle between ‘being for children’ and ‘being for adults’. Burton’s decision to make the picture in black and white shows considerable artistic integrity and it’s funny how Disney now seem to let him do what he wants when in the 80’s they couldn’t stand his stuff. Less pleasing to me is his [or maybe Disney’s] decision to shoot the film in the big con known as 3D. It even opens with people watching a home movie wearing the old-style 3D glasses and them being told it’s in 3D. It seems sneaky to me and starts the film off on a sour note.
Fortunately it quickly gets very good. It basically closely remakes the older Frankenweenie, to the point of recreating scenes exactly, but adds some characters and subplots including a spot of monster rampaging near the end. Of course it’s all a riff on the Frankenstein story and a tribute to old horror movies, especially the 1931 Frankenstein [with a bit of Bride], from which both versions of Frankenweenie borrow a great deal including a cemetery [ though it’s now of course a pet cemetery] and a windmill climax. I reckon fans of old horror films will love spotting the many references to older pictures in the new version, many of them very brief and even subtle. You’ll see the original versions of Nosferatu and The Raven, The Birds, The Bird With The Crystal Plumage [one which certainly surprised me but seemed obvious],and many others, while the whole film has a dark, Gothic mood despite its look actually being a lot simpler than one would expect from Burton, with less elaborate detail than usual. Amongst Burton’s own features it seems closest to Edward Scisssorhands, with its skewed version of suburbia and hill at the end of the main street, plus the way elements of the story pan out, though of course all that was there in the original Frankenweenie made years before the Johnny Depp picture.
Despite overall the film looking less visually striking than you would think, there is still some great detail to enjoy such as Victor’s laboratory, which is basically a Universal Frankenstein film-style set but done with everyday objects like heaters, bicycle wheels and tins, and what with characters usually sporting long spindly arms, stretched faces and big eyes [Victor looks just like his namesake in Corpse Bride], we are still definitely in Burtonland. The plot progresses very quickly and we are soon treated to a great set piece with Victor bringing his dog to life in his attic, with sparks flying and Danny Elfman’s music soaring at its bombastic best. Sparky’s revival is done beautifully, with the dog under a blanket and us seeing first the end of his tail wag, then his tongue emerge to lick Victor’s hand. It’s a lovely contrast to the usual ‘monster awakening’ scene you see in Frankenstein movies which are generally done with the emphasis on the horror. I also enjoyed seeing a scientist who was actually a positive character, in fact science in general is presented fairly sympathetically rather than as a Big Scary Thing; it’s just that it can be misused.
That misuse comes in the action-packed final third where others try their hand at reviving animals and it all goes pear shaped, resulting in such sights as a cat with bat wings and a huge turtle stomping about like he’s escaped from a Japanese Kaiju flick. This will seem like heaven to monster movie fans and I loved all this stuff, but I could have done with a couple of extra scenes between boy and dog to help give the film the emotional dimension it only occasionally has and which movies like the ’31 Boris Karloff classic have in spades. It almost seems like such scenes may have been in the film but were cut out, though I doubt it considering how time consuming stop motion is. I watched the original Frankenweenie before I set off for the cinema to watch the remake, and found it more affecting in its low-key way. This one is funnier though, especially a transformed hamster which is built up to be a huge H.P.Lovecraft-type creature but emerges as one of the most pathetic monsters you’ll ever see. Both versions still suffer from an out-of-place happy ending which just doesn’t work.
The voice cast all do fine work and especially an unrecognisable Martin Landau, though I kept asking myself “where’s Christopher Lee”? Elfman’s score makes cool use of the organ and the theramin though is very much Elfman-by-numbers and even sneaks in part of his Batman theme! Frankenweenie just falls short of the greatness it should have and, truth be told, I think Paranorman is a slightly better film. Nonetheless Mr Burton, the real Mr Burton, it’s good to have you back.