Tim Burton returns to his roots making a feature-length version of one of the two short films that made him famous. Filling the film with references to classic horror and sci-fi films he tell the story of teenage Victor Frankenstein who brought his dog back to life as a cute and likeable patchwork monstrosity. The story is pleasant enough in a macabre sort of way, but it is much more coherent in the parts updated from the original. The new material takes a while to get going and, in some ways, the use of animation instead of the original live action takes away from the fun of the film. Burton only occasionally improves on what was in the 1984 version.
Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10.
Thirty years ago, a Tim Burton in his mid-twenties made two short films for Disney Studios. The first was ‘Vincent’, an animated story of a boy who like Burton himself idolised Vincent Price and his horror movies. The second of the films was ‘Frankenweenie’, a mostly live-action film of the boy who lost the dog he loved, but was inspired by science class to bring the dog back to life. The film was a winning send-up of horror films in general and of the James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein’ films for Universal. Now Burton has expanded his 27-minute short into an 87-minute all-animated film. To do this, he has essentially added a second concurrent story that somehow is not quite as congenial.
The plot is simple. Teen-ager Victor Frankenstein loves his dog Sparky more than anything else in the world. He is heart-broken when the dog is hit by a car and dies. Then in science class, he sees his teacher get a dead frog to kick its legs by shocking it with electricity and Victor decides to use electricity to bring Sparky back to life. In the new film, several of Victor’s classmates decide they want to win the science fair and when the secret of Victor’s experiment leaks out they all get involved making monsters of their own for the fair.
One has the feeling in the B story that Burton is trying to stretch his work, even if only to a minimally feature-length film. When we get some monsters toward the end they do not seem like they are good ideas for monsters and they are not properly motivated in the story. The A story is really not a lot changed from the original film except for being animated. That does not always work in the film’s favour. When we see in each film, Sparky transformed into a prehistoric creature for a film Victor is making, it is much cuter in the original with a live dog. As long as Sparky is already animated adding the additional features is just not as endearing.
Another problem with the animated version is common to much of Burton’s animation. One can always recognize Tim Burton and production designer Rick Heinrich’s style of animation. Normal people have big, wide eyes with little black dot irises, small pinched noses and mouths and triangular tight faces. The most expressive features are the eyebrows and maybe a small smile or frown. That is all well and good, but somehow it short-circuits the expression of emotion. The soul of drama is the actors’ emoting and as cute as Burton’s characters are, they have bland faces that do not express emotion well. The science teacher and a boy with a Peter Lorre voice diverge from the style. But the science teacher has even less emotion in his face and the boy has a constant wide grin, even when he is unhappy. The animation can overcome this problem, but it is a definite handicap.
The film has a pleasant choral score by Tim Burton’s regular composer, Danny Elfman.
Undeniably, Burton’s first telling of the story has a great deal of charm coming both from the clever film references and from the presence of a live dog to help tell the story. The new version adds an okay second plot and a trainload of horror film references. It even adds a little political content advocating the importance of science – real science, not the re-animating corpse kind. We lose the charm of the live dog. (Any live dog. Bears would be nice, too. But a cat who communicates the way this one does should not have made it past the first draft, Tim.) I rate Frankenweenie a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2012 Mark R. Leeper