It’s obvious at first glance that Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE – the feature-length adaptation of his own short film from his early years as a filmmaker – is an adaptation of the original FRANKENSTEIN story: a character named Victor Frankenstein, shaken by his inability to cope with death, brings a creature back from the dead. What is not obvious is just how deep Burton’s reverence for not just FRANKENSTEIN, but all monster films, comes across in the film. Though FRANKENWEENIE begins harmlessly enough as an innocent FRANKENSTEIN clone, by the end of the film Burton has made it clear that this is not just an homage to Mary Shelley’s original work – it’s a love letter to all monster films, whether they be from Universal’s back-catalog or not.
Shot beautifully in black-and-white and 3D, this stop-motion, children’s horror film brings Burton back to his roots in the best way possible. It’s a huge return to form for the director, especially for fans of his who have longed for a qualitative return to his early animation days. Reaching back in time and dusting off this little short, it’s obvious that the Gothic director cares a great deal about this material – more so than can be said about anything he’s done in a long time. It’s clear that the charm, the wit and the genuine heart of FRANKENWEENIE resonates with Burton on an emotional level, and it comes across on screen in every frame.
The story begins fairly predictably: young, brilliant outcast Victor, after losing his dog, resorts to the scientific inspiration of his new teacher in order to bring the dog back to life. It’s a timeless story that’s lent renewed potency by the innocence of the child-and-his-pet dynamic between the characters. This is not about Frankenstein struggling with the idea of death and thus creating a monster – it’s just about him struggling with the idea of death.
In this way, Burton captures the spirit and thematic content of the original story with commanding dexterity. Victor’s story arc is reasonably similar to that of his spiritual counterpart – though filtered through a new lens of youthful discovery – but it’s the parallel themes between the Monster of the original story and Sparky the dog where the story truly shines. In spite of the fact that Sparky is just a dog, Burton never lets him off the hook of the progression of the story; the adorable little animal (seriously – cutest thing I’ve seen all year) still has to struggle with his own existence. It takes a rare touch to display to an audience the inner turmoil of a reanimated dog, but Burton pulls it off in one of the most affecting sequences in the film.
And in the final act of the film, Burton and his team manage to pay homage to a host of memorable creature-features from throughout Hollywood’s history, all filtered within the context of the story: Boris Karloff, GODZILLA, GREMLINS, Vincent Price and more all get their fair due. FRANKENWEENIE is, in actuality, a Universal Monster fanboy’s dream come true, but Burton never lets the fan service devolve into anything other than an organic progression of the story.
The animation is perfect. Stop-motion is a dying art form, and it’s terrific news to fans everywhere that Burton is one of the few mainstream directors out there who are still willing to direct an entire feature in the format – especially in black and white. There’s something tremendously endearing about the way that Sparky moves within the lush, beautiful sets, somehow feeling both nostalgic and fresh all at the same time. It’s the perfect medium to tell this story in, and Burton nails the design around every corner, as he often does.
Which is the best part about FRANKENWEENIE: Burton’s eccentricities – which have so often actually limited and burdened him in recent years – are actually spiritually and tonally relevant here. This is a Tim Burton film, not a studio film directed by Tim Burton, and that’s an important distinction to make. The Gothic aesthetic is beautiful and natural, lending the world of the film a uniqueness that actually gels the story together, rather than haphazardly fragmenting it.
But what really makes the film come alive are the characters, which are Tim Burton through and through. Many of the characters are directly inspired by horror staples: Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) is a perfect throwback to Vincent Price, and Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), Martin Short’s Nassor (a Boris Karloff circa THE MUMMY imitation) and Winona Ryder’s Elsa van Helsing all recall famous horror characters and actors of old. Each character is memorable and wildly original, but the fan favorite seems to already be Catherine O’Hara’s “Weird Girl”, who steals every scene in which she appears with her saucer-eyed, absentee expression and equally vacant-looking cat, Mr. Whiskers.
FRANKENWEENIE is a big win for Tim Burton, who has crafted yet another Gothic, stop-motion classic which will resonate with both children and adults for entirely different reasons. After a couple of critically disappointing features, it’s nice to see the director get back to doing what he does best.