When young Tim Burton was an animator and artist at Disney in the early 1980s, he directed two now-famous short films for the company.
"Vincent" was a stop-motion homage to Vincent Price, while "Frankenweenie" was a live-action tribute to "Frankenstein" about a boy who reconstructs and reanimates his dead dog. The movies were funny, stylish, macabre and black-and-white.
Alas, "Frankenbambi" was never to be. The overseers of Mickey Mouse smelled a rat and fired Burton, whose dark sensibility owed more to Arthur Rackham, Charles Addams and Edward Gorey than to Walt Disney. Burton responded by directing "Pee-wee's Big Adventure," "Beetlejuice" and "Batman" for other companies, becoming a cult hero, respected auteur and Hollywood brand name.
After unexpectedly losing his beloved dog Sparky, young Victor harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life-with just a few ...
Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images and action
Length: 87 minutes
Released: October 5, 2012 Nationwide
Cast: Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer
Director: Tim Burton
Writer: Tim Burton, John August
Of course, Disney wanted this bankable "content provider" back. In 2010, Burton directed Disney's 3D "Alice in Wonderland," a movie that grossed more than one billion dollars worldwide. It's no wonder, then, that Disney is the happy sponsor of Burton's new 3D "Frankenweenie," a long-planned feature-length expansion of the 1984 short that retains the original's black-and-white palette but replaces the flesh-and-blood actors with stop-motion figures. (These ingenious homunculi were created by a team of veteran British puppetmakers headed by Ian Mckinnon and Peter Saunders.)
Arriving seven weeks after the similarly stop-motion "ParaNorman" and only a week after the digitally animated "Hotel Transylvania," "Frankenweenie" suggests a certain longing among adult moviemakers (if not within the films' young target demographic) for the reassuring old-school ghouls of the pre-"Saw" era, when makeup artists devoted most of their talents to the monsters themselves and not to the gruesome fates of their victims.
"Frankenweenie" is the story of young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a clever, somewhat quiet suburban youth who loves his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara), his playful dog, Sparky (who more or less resembles a bull terrier), and the pursuit of science.
When Sparky is killed, Victor — inspired by the demonstrations of dead-frog galvanism performed by his science teacher (a Vincent Price caricature, voiced with an Eastern European accent by Martin Landau) — decides to restore his dog to life.
Inspired by the famous "creation" sequences in the James Whale "Frankenstein" movies, Sparky's resurrection is — like much of the film — essentially played straight, despite the absurd context and humorous production design (by Rick Heinrichs, who has been with Burton since before the original "Frankenweenie"). Victor's makeshift electrical apparatus include a toaster, a bicycle and Christmas-display rooftop reindeer.
Despite the grotesque unfit-for-Westminster aspect of his neck bolts and stitches, the revived Sparky inspires the other neighborhood children to pursue their own pet-centric experiments. The result is a typically frenetic Burton finale that is more amusing and coherent than the action overloads that marred the climaxes of "Sleepy Hollow" and "Dark Shadows," even with its winks in the direction of "Gremlins," "Ghoulies" and Gamera, the giant Japanese turtle.
In theory, the painstaking process of stop-motion animation — in which puppetry figures are positioned and photographed, frame by frame, again and again, to create an illusion of movement — is ideal for a story about an experiment intended to reanimate the dead. What is stop-motion if not a process that invests inanimate objects with apparent life?
However, the unreal nature of the technique also gives Burton license to indulge his oddest whims. The horror elements of the original short added an incongruous element to the depiction of an otherwise all-too-normal suburbia. In the stop-motion "Frankenweenie," every character — except Victor's parents — is a weirdo or misfit.
The other kids include a Luna Lovegood-esque "Weird Girl" whose pet cat, Mr. Whiskers, leaves prophetic droppings in its litter box (copromancy?); a flat-headed goon who speaks with a Karloffian lisp; and a snaggletoothed hunchback (voiced by Atticus Shaffer, whose humorous cacklings steal the show). In this neighborhood, a zombie dog hardly seems worth barking about.
The movie's attitude toward death (retained from the original short) and inevitable happy ending is something of a cop-out. If nothing else, "Frankenweenie" demonstrates that Disney never would greenlight "Old Yeller" today.
Poor: Zero stars
Good: One star
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Excellent: Three stars
Extraordinary: Four stars