A film review by Craig J. Koban October 17, 2012


2012, PG, 87 mins.


With the voices of:
Victor: Charlie Tahan / Dad: Martin Short / Mom: Catherine O’Hara / Mr. Rzykruski: Martin Landau / Elsa: Winona Ryder

Directed by Tim Burton / Written by John August, based on a script by Lenny Ripps and an original idea by Burton.


If you left Tim Burton’s FRANKENWEENIE feeling like you've experienced déjà vu…then…well…that’s logical.  

His new 3D stop motion animated fable is a remake of his very own 30-minute 1984 live action short film of the same name he made while working for Disney, which in turn was an affectionate and sly homage and spoof of the 1931 film version of Mary Shelly’s FRANKENSTEIN.  Burton was infamously fired by Disney after the short was produced (they cited the short being too dark and scary for children as the main reason), which seems ironic in retrospect, seeing as Burton has gone on to make the big budget feature length remake of the short for…Disney.  

In an overall aesthetic style that bares resemblance to Burton’s own produced THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and his directed CORPSE’S BRIDE, FRANKENWEENIE tells a sweet and innocent tale of a young and intrepid lad named Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and his loving relationship with his best friend in the world, a bull terrier named Sparky.  They live in the fictitious New Holland, which seems to be stuck within an eerie 1950’s Norman Rockwell-esque milieu.  Victor is a young enterprising filmmaker and scientist, but he seems isolated and friendless at school, which worries his father and mother (a nicely low-key Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara), so Victor’s dad convinces the boy to take up sports. 

The father’s dream comes true - albeit briefly - for Victor and his son hits a home run during his very first game, but poor ol’ Sparky runs after the ball into the streets and is then run over and killed.  After they bury the deceased animal Victor becomes nearly inconsolable, but his spirits are picked up during a lecture by his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, wickedly channeling aspects of Bela Lugosi, whom he previously played in Burton’s ED WOOD), who shows a demonstration of how electricity can reanimate a dead frog.  Lightning strikes (no pun intended) and Victor hatches a clever, if not a bit ghastly plan: he will dig up the corpse of Sparky, stitch him back together, and harness the power of a thunderstorm to bring his beloved canine back to life. 



Miraculous – and much to Victor’s delight – Sparky does indeed get zapped back to life, and even though he’s in rough shape early on, Sparky soon appears to be running around like he was before he was driven over…with a few nasty side-effects (like, for instance, his tail falling off from over-wagging).  Victor, however, realizes that he must keep his creation a secret from his mother and father and the rest of the town out of fear of misunderstanding of his true intent, so he desperately tries to keep Sparky secluded in his attic with mixed results.  One particularly nosey – and hunchbacked - student named (ahem) Edward E. Gore manages to find out Victor’s secret and blackmails him into showing him how he brought Sparky back from the dead.  Unfortunately, other students find out as well, and they all seem keen on experimenting with Victor’s methods in various forms to potentially win an upcoming science contest, and when all of these boys playing God reanimate their own dead pets, the results are unexpectedly grotesque to say the least. 

As was the case with his 1984 antecedent, Burton's FRANKENWEENIE hits its stride when it tells the simple story of the love of a boy and his dog, and this key theme keeps the film buoyantly alive and emotionally resonating for viewers.  It’s also abundantly clear that this is a very personal story for Burton, as we can easily see a bit of the director in young Victor himself, who makes his very own stop motion animated films with his action figures and cardboard props.  It’s of interest that Burton has decided to tell this very story not once, but twice, which more or less indicates his overall fondness for the material. 

FRANKENWEENIE is also a pure visual delight, lovingly crafted with the quintessential oddball and darkly eccentric Burton-esque visual and stylistic flourishes that have an unsophisticated beauty; character designs have a lively, energetic and minimalist appearance and he mixes them in with an evocative suburban art design from yesteryear that feels both familiar and foreign at the same time.   The film is in 3D, yes, but it’s welcoming and immersive instead of being a lame, eye-gouging gimmick.  I was enchanted by just how restrained the multi-dimensional sheen of the film is, not to mention that it’s entirely in black and white, which is a fairly bold and courageous move for a major studio animated production.  Considering the manner that FRANKENWEENIE riffs on old classic Universal horror film motifs, the black and white feels fitting. 

The script from John August (he worked with Burton numerous times before on CORPSE BRIDE, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, BIG FISH, and last summer’s DARK SHADOWS) is enamored with many subversively funny references to FRANKENSTEIN and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN, with more than fleeting winks (at least later in the film) to other horror/monster film staples like GODZILLA, during which one of Victor’s rivals reanimates his pet turtle that morphs into a 50-foot tall creature with a ravenous bite and penchant for destruction.  The final monster-mash third act of the film is off-puttingly chaotic and a tad incongruent with the stark economy of the more essential arc of the boy/dog relationship  leading up to it.  The way August lets the peacefully tender tale of Victor and Sparky give way to the crude mayhem on display in the film’s final twenty minutes is disappointing. 

Here’s another thing: FRANKENWEENIE is engineered as a tribute to horror/monster films, but many of the sly references to those genre efforts will undoubtedly please adults while simultaneously confound young children in attendance.  Burton’s film is also perhaps too dark, too macabre, and frankly too scary at times to be really accessible to kid viewers (part of the film’s demographic).  The notion of a boy digging up his dead and mutilated dog is sinister enough, but the film also contains other crude and grisly details, like a young girl’s cat that can psychically see into the future via its own…feces.  Yuck. 

FRANKENWEENIE looks sensational, makes good and unobtrusive usage of 3D, and has ample voice talent on board, my favorite being Landau’s wonderfully mannered and creepy drollness as the teacher that just wants to introduce his students to the wonders of science, but uses the hilariously inappropriate word usage to describe his aims.  I liked the affectionate charm that Burton paints the story of Victor and Sparky, something that anyone that has ever had a pet and has lost one will clearly be able to relate to.  I liked the horror film references too.  Alas, I’m left with some semi-troubled feelings pondering whom FRANKENWEENIE was really made for; the adult in me ate the film up, but the young boy in me felt like too much of it went over my head…or sent me screaming for the theatre exits.

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