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