In 1984, Tim Burton was fired by Disney while working on his short film Frankenweenie. Nearly thirty years later, Burton takes a victory lap after delivering to Disney the billion-dollar-grossing Alice in Wonderland, by expanding his short to feature length via the stop-motion animation process he previously worked with on The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride.
The project could not come at a better time for long term fans of Burton’s, whose endearing artistic flourishes have been curiously absent from most of his remake-heavy work the past decade. Thankfully, Burton’s DNA is all over Frankenweenie. It will remind you what you originally loved about his films, such as Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, as he returns to a gothic sandbox.
Frankenweenie tells the story of budding filmmaker and science enthusiast Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), and his loyal dog Sparky. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and Sparky is killed. Inspired by an electrifying lecture by his inspirational science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor decides to attempt to harness the power of his town’s frequent lightning strikes in an attempt to spend a little more time with his darling companion.
The experiment succeeds, but Sparky’s presence can’t be kept secret forever. As Victor struggles with the implications of reanimation and the increasing attention of meddlesome, misfit classmates, the townspeople converge to confront what frightens and confuses them. Can Sparky remain? Should he?
Frankenweenie is very fun, with a darkly comedic tone and energy. The town and its inhabitants are wonderfully odd, and there are a lot of truly inspired moments in the film. Aside from the vulnerable performance of voice actor Charlie Tahan, the commendably encouraging parents (played by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short), and the adorably awkward next-door neighbor Elsa (Winona Ryder), the most striking character is that of Sparky himself. He is convincingly rendered in a manner that most dog owners will love and appreciate.
Tim Burton’s reverence and love for classic monster movies also brings a welcome level of mayhem and dread to the often placid and sterile world of filmmaking for children. The character design takes advantage of stop-motion animation, and the 3D does an exquisite job of bringing the detail of those lovingly crafted figures to life.
There’s something about the combination of black and white with 3D that makes this film seem all the more beautiful, surreal, and magical. It’s also great to see Burton taking risks again. Aside from the truly daring decision to release a children’s animated film in black and white, Mr. Rzykruski’s passionate pro-science lecture may anger parents in certain parts of the country.
I’d say that 8 and older could handle it. There are some particularly tense and scary moments, most of which are quickly diffused with humor. The death of the pet is handled artfully, and the understanding parents certainly broach the subject with empathy.
Frankenweenie ultimately proves that Burton was right to resurrect the project. You will believe a dog can fry.