The third in a triumvirate of late summer/early autumn horror animations and the most hotly anticipated in my eyes, Frankenweenie is a feature length remake of the short film that Director Tim Burton made while working for Disney that got him fired twenty-eight years ago. Over a quarter of a century later and with a back catalogue of hits under his belt, Disney invited Burton to remake his short for them. A homage to early talkie Hollywood horror and filmed in black and white stop motion, Frankenweenie is the story of a young boy called Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who loses his only childhood friend, his dog Sparky. Whilst in science class and having seen a dead frog have his legs manipulated by electricity, Victor gets the idea to try the same thing with his deceased dog and is successful in reanimating Sparky. Although he tries to keep it a secret it isn’t long before other children from school find out and blackmail Victor into helping them to do the same thing. The results of their experiments though are much less successful and lead to a horde of rampaging monsters that threaten the town.
First up I’ll say that in my opinion Frankenweenie is the best of the recent children’s-horror-comedy-stop motion films. I was massively disappointed with ParaNorman and although Hotel Transylvania had its moments it was average at best. Although I think this is better than those two, I still left feeling a little cold. There was an awful lot that I liked about the film but there was just something nagging me at the back of my mind that meant I wasn’t able to go with it completely. Although I can’t put my finger on it exactly, it might be the lack of humour which left me disappointed. Even so, as I said there is a lot to admire here.
The animation and lighting are superb. I mention it a lot but I’m a big fan of stop motion and have even given it a go myself but Burton’s animators have created a beautiful, realistic and interesting world out of their clay. The modelling and animation is clean and neat enough to look professional and expensive but still maintains a handmade look to it. There are plenty of nods to horror design as well as Ray Harryhausen stop motion but the design is of course very Burton-esque and reminiscent of The Nightmare before Christmas and especially Corpse Bride. The design looks as though it may well be based on the sort of small town America that Burton would have known in his youth and feels extremely familiar. The bungalows, white picket fences, town square and Elementary School look accurate and are really well done. In that respect they also reminded me of the likes of Beetlejuice's model town and that of Edward Scissorhands. Burton’s canon is so distinctive though that you could show someone a frame from pretty much any film and they’d know it was one of his.
The plot obviously follows Mary Shelley’s story fairly closely at times but is vastly different in other areas. Victor’s classmates are made up of other horror characters and include the likes of Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) and the hunchbacked Edar E. Gore (Atticus Shaffer). Other characters resemble horror royalty such as a bride of Frankenstein dog, Frankenstein’s monster and teacher based on Vincent Price. Stock footage of Christopher Lee’s incarnation of Dracula is also seen and there are numerous horror film references dotted throughout the film for those old enough to notice. The problem of course is that the target audience is probably 8-14 year olds for whom the references such as a giant reanimated tortoise chasing a Japanese boy won’t mean a thing. At times I found the story a little tiring too as although I was enjoying the animation and horror tropes, there was nothing I hadn’t seen before and I didn’t laugh once.
It is obvious that the film is very personal to Tim Burton. The fact that he is revisiting it over twenty-five years after its first incarnation must tell us something but the story itself has a ring of Burton’s own childhood. Victor is different and misunderstood. He enjoys making short films in his attic and isn’t into sports like ‘normal’ kids. He has few friends and is looked upon as an outsider. You don’t need to have read a Burton biography to recognise the parallels. The film also feels much more coherent and better managed and directed than Burton’s recent films. The Direction and especially imaginative camera angles actually really impressed me and helped to make the film even more interesting to look at.
My favourite part of the whole film was the message it sends to America about science. The message isn’t even subtle, it is front and centre and in a film targeted at the next generation. Victor’s teacher faces an angry mob of parents for teaching his class ‘all this science nonsense which we don’t understand’. In a fairly long monologue the teacher turns to the parents and to America itself and calls them idiots for their old world, closed mind attitude to the unknown. In a speech aimed firmly at the Neo-Con religious right, Burton tells America that their lack of understanding is to their detriment and that they should open their eyes and their hearts to the wonders of science. The teacher claims (rightly) that they like the advances that science brings but don’t appreciate the questions it raises. I absolutely loved this section and just hope that it actually resonated with a least a small proportion of the audience.
Overall Frankenweenie is a heartfelt homage to the horror genre which is shot and directed in a more than capable manner by someone who knows the genre well. The story touches upon some distressing areas while remaining family friendly and also sneaks in some propaganda too. The problems lie in that it isn’t funny and is an area that Burton has visited before more successfully. Nonetheless it is the best of the recent horror-motion genre and a partial return to form for the Director.