Movie review: Frankenweenie
Tim Burton outdoes himself by mostly restraining his creative tendencies
Posted: January 9, 2013
Hair-raising. This stop-motion film has some very gratifying winks to other films, including James Whale's classic Bride of Frankenstein.
Frankenweenie is a stop-motion film made by the master of the morbid, Tim Burton. However, while many would readily think of his visually exuberant ventures of late, such as last year's alluring Dark Shadows or the sentimental Alice in Wonderland in 2010, he is also the author of works that are at once comical and reflexive, even moving, like Edward Scissorhands or Big Fish.
One of Tim Burton's first films was a 1984 short titled Frankenweenie, in which a young boy called Victor brings his pet bull terrier Sparky back to life by flying a kite during a thunderstorm with Sparky attached at one end. The film was a clever adaptation of the 1931 James Whale-directed horror classic Frankenstein, which centers on the misunderstood loner embodied by Frankenstein's monster, who comes to a nasty end when he is chased by hordes of rabid townspeople wielding torches and pitchforks and ultimately perishes inside a windmill that's been set alight.
Burton's 1984 film was a scream, with violins throughout the score and people in constant hysterics, but it is absolutely worth checking out, even though most viewers tend to shy away from short films while having no problem watching an episode of a television series that is exactly the same length.
This live-action film has now been remade by Burton with numerous changes, some of which are inspired, while others are the almost expected consequences of stretching the same story from 30 minutes to 90 minutes.
Directed by Tim Burton
With Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder (voices)
In both stories, Victor is a bit of a recluse whose only real connection to the world is his dog, and he suffers terrible guilt and loss when Sparky dies as he crosses the road to fetch a ball Victor either threw or hit, depending on the film you're talking about. In the new film, equipped with his own editing suite to perfect his short film projects, Victor is more of a nerd, and it's not difficult to recognize Burton as the young boy.
The first half of the story stays more or less the same, but many formerly peripheral characters have here been given extra weight, with their particular actions expanded to fill the time. Whereas the original film was mostly about Victor's discovery that electricity can reanimate the dead (incidentally, Victor's surname is Frankenstein) and Sparky's subsequent adventures that upset the small-minded townspeople, Burton's feature-length film has many extra storylines.
The most intriguing of these involves the square old man living next door to the Frankensteins with his soft-spoken niece and her French poodle. The old man, who is also the mayor of the small town, is basically a carbon copy of Mr. Wilson in Dennis the Menace, except we never have any sympathy for him. Sparky has his eye on the French poodle, Persephone, and the attraction is mutual. In what is bound to be one of the film's signature moments, a spark of electricity flies from the recently resurrected Sparky to Persephone, producing a white streak in her honeycomb, à la Bride of Frankenstein.
One unexpected improvement on Burton's original is the personality Sparky now has, which Burton wasn't able to glean from a real animal in his previous live-action short.
The plot is modestly modeled on Frankenstein, though only the transformation from death to life and the final chase of townsfolk with torches (but without pitchforks) are worth paying attention to.
What is more interesting is Burton's use of his short film to tease the viewer in a way that is enriched by her having seen the earlier film but for whom such knowledge is not essential: Certain pivotal scenes are deliberately drawn out a little longer, and in the process we move closer and closer to the edge of our seats, even though we know things will work out they did in the first film. Sparky's death is one such moment, and so is the film's final scene.
The director's creativity is on full display in scenes at the pet cemetery, where gravestones are shaped into peculiar objects that reflect the animals buried below, but the last part of the film, in which a Godzilla-like tortoise, a halfbreed bat-cat and a delirious tribe of sea monkeys terrorize the small town of New Holland, is overkill and feels out of sorts with the rest of the production. Especially in light of the very touching, intimate shots, mostly with Sparky the outcast, that are interspersed with the footage, this detour into mega-monster territory is wholly uncalled for.
With the addition of characters such as the wide-eyed cat, Mr. Wiskers, whose clairvoyance is proved by the form of its feces, and the long-faced and eerie but misunderstood science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), this Frankenweenie has its eye firmly on the goal of entertaining the viewer. Add to this the central character of Sparky, the coat on his freshly exhumed body barely held together by screws and stitches, the evocative music of Danny Elfman and Burton's always funny take on small-town America, and you have a film that is mostly as good as it can be given its apparent limitations as an adaptation of a 30-minute film.
Even if you are not a fan of most of Tim Burton's films, this one is a must.
André Crous can be reached at