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Frankenweenie

Movie Information

The Story: Tim Burton returns to one of his early short films for the basis of this animated tale of a young boy who brings his dead dog back to life after the fashion of Dr. Frankenstein. The Lowdown: Beautifully crafted animated film that plays to all of Burton's strengths and none of his weaknesses. A real treat for fans of classic horror and Tim Burton.
Score:

Genre: Animated Horror Fantasy
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: (Voices of) Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer
Rated: PG

We all know by now that Tim Burton’s masterful Frankenweenie “underperformed” at the box office — since the greater part of the public appears to prefer rubbish like Taken 2 and Hotel Transylvania. Of course, rather than accept that, everyone seems to be determined to find the cause for the failure in the film. High on the list are the two ideas that children won’t go to black and white movies, and that the film is too dark and scary for younger children. Personally, I see very little justification for either claim. The black and white argument strikes me as especially weak, but it gets trotted out as an easy answer. In the end, it probably doesn’t matter. In fact, it won’t matter in the least because this is a movie I have no doubt that time will be kind to. Years from now, Frankenweenie will still be around. Hotel Transylvania? Probably not.

I’m not about to climb on the “Burton redeems himself” bandwagon, which seems a fairly common critical sentiment. (Remember, the film has an abundance of good reviews.) My problem with that is that I don’t think he needed redemption — even though I would concede that his Alice in Wonderland (2010) was one of his lesser works (ironically, it made a fortune). I do, however, think Frankenweenie is as close as you’re likely to get Burtonesque perfection. Everything about it is in just the right key to appeal to anyone who likes Burton’s style. In some respects — and not just because it’s based on his 1984 short film of the same name — Frankenweenie plays like a greatest-hits package. It takes the original idea and cleverly expands it by bringing in a variety of other characters and much greater character development. The real brilliance, however, lies in the choice of stop-motion animation — an approach that translates the slender original into a much grander affair.

The story is essentially the same — young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Trahan, Charlie St. Cloud) uses an array of household appliances and (apparently) his knowledge of old horror pictures to bring his beloved dog Sparky back from the dead. This round, however, the build-up is better and Burton’s handling of it all is much more assured. Plus, the payoff — which I’m not about to spoil by getting too specific about just exactly what happens — is much bigger, much cleverer and much more of an homage to old horror movies. But there’s more. The animation approach allows for the whole film to be a stylized creation that’s of a single piece. The real settings that Burton had to make do with in 1984 are replaced by a much clearer picture of his vision of suburbia. In fact, what he has created is a town that recalls the suburbia of Edward Scissorhands (1990) — complete with a mountain at the end of the street. Only this time, there’s a windmill on the hillside (and a variation on the “Hollywood sign”).

The film bubbles over with movie references and characters drawn from other movies — including some of Burton’s own. Probably the best of these is the high school science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (it’s pronounced kind of like Rice Krispies). The character looks a lot like Burton’s childhood hero Vincent Price (who played the Inventor in Edward Scissorhands), but who sounds a bit more like Bela Lugosi — probably because Burton’s own Lugosi from Ed Wood (1994), Martin Landau, is providing the voice. This is only one of many references to everything from Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to The Mummy (1932) to Invasion of the Saucermen to Gamera (1965) — with a lot of other nods along the way. If you like Burton or you like classic — and some not-so-classic — horror, the movie is a dream come true. And, boy, is it gorgeous to look at! Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action.

Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

7 thoughts on “Frankenweenie

  1. Xanadon't

    High on the list are the two ideas that children won’t go to black and white movies, and that the film is too dark and scary for younger children. Personally, I see very little justification for either claim.

    Sadly I wonder if it’s not more a case of many parents not wishing to go to a black and white movie.

    As for the second claim, I can imagine the movie frightening certain younger children right out of their shoes. But hey, some of those kids might like the film for that very reason.

    This was easily the most fun I’ve had at a Burton picture since Sweeny Todd.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Sadly I wonder if it’s not more a case of many parents not wishing to go to a black and white movie.

    That had occurred to me, too.

    As for the second claim, I can imagine the movie frightening certain younger children right out of their shoes.

    There are always wusses — often, I think, created by over-protective parents. I mean really, there’s nothing in this that isn’t in scads of old movies that have been showing for 50+ years on TV without parental warning.

    This was easily the most fun I’ve had at a Burton picture since Sweeny Todd.

    I wouldn’t argue that, but I seriously enjoyed Dark Shadows.

  3. Orbit DVD

    There are always wusses — often, I think, created by over-protective parents. I mean really, there’s nothing in this that isn’t in scads of old movies that have been showing for 50+ years on TV without parental warning.

    Happy now, Ken?

    I see this on a daily basis at my stores. I don’t really blame the parents, but I feel that being scared and especially overcoming fears is a vital part of growing up. I started showing both my kids Universal horror films when they were two and they both seem ok… or are they?

    I wouldn’t argue that, but I seriously enjoyed Dark Shadows.

    I didn’t think I would like Dark Shadows, but I did. I have high hopes for this one, but there are a lot of movies that I need to see in the theaters! What intrigues me about Frankenweenie is that it is based on one of Burton’s original ideas… not someone else’s.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Happy now, Ken?

    I’m utterly mystified as to what I am supposed to be happy about.

    I see this on a daily basis at my stores. I don’t really blame the parents, but I feel that being scared and especially overcoming fears is a vital part of growing up. I started showing both my kids Universal horror films when they were two and they both seem ok… or are they?

    Well, who are you going to blame? Madame Sul-te-wan? I’ve had limited exposure to your kids (you perhaps planned it that way), but they appeared okay to me.

    What intrigues me about Frankenweenie is that it is based on one of Burton’s original ideas… not someone else’s

    I’m not sure I’d call a movie that references scads of other movies entirely original in its ideas. On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with that.

  5. Me

    There is a great conversation on this weeks The Best Show on WFMU with the great Chris Elliot about Tim Burton’s involvement with the film Cabin Boy.

    Im pretty stoked that Get a Life is finally on DVD. Chris Elliots also got a new book out.

    Ken i know how big a fan of Tim Burton’s you are you should check it out.

    They start talking about it at the 59 minute mark. Its the October 23 show at the top of the list on this page.

    http://wfmu.org/playlists/BS

  6. Ken Hanke

    I may check that out. I had a long conversation with Adam Resnick about the film some years ago and it was very interesting.

  7. Me

    They tell some pretty funny stories Adam Resnick and Chris Elliot sit in for the whole show.

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