Frankenweenie charms, but loses its heart along the way
Tim Burton’s live-action ‘Frankenweenie’ short is a cult classic, and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’ is a perennial favorite. Can the new, feature-length animated ‘Frankenweenie’ live up to expectations?
If there was any movie I was really looking forward to this year (besides Les Miserables), it was Tim Burton’s animated remake/expansion of his delightful short film Frankenweenie. That film was a classic boy and his dog story with a bit of tragedy, sci-fi and horror mixed in. Basically an homage to the great Universal monster movies of the 1930s. The story was simple: Sparky, the beloved pet of a young boy named Victor Frankenstein, is hit by a car and dies. Heartbroken, Victor tries to revive his dog in much the same way the movie Frankenstein monster was brought to life. The operation is a success, but the townspeople are horrified to see the newly reanimated pooch roaming the streets, leading to a climactic showdown at a windmill (reminiscent of the original Frankenstein movie).
The film was shot in black and white, and used the same expressionistic style of the Universal classics, and had a running time of about 28 minutes. So how do you expand a perfectly constructed short film by nearly an hour without tearing the heart out of the story? The short answer is you really can’t, and that’s what makes the new Frankenweenie a bit of a disappointment.
The new film starts out with the same basic structure of the short, and really manages to pull on your heartstrings as Sparky runs into the road and is hit by a passing car. You never see the accident, but you know what happened, and Victor’s reaction tells you everything you need to know. I confess, I had a huge tear roll down my face as I thought about my own dog at home. From this point, the film has to really open up the story, so we’re introduced to Victor’s classmates at school including Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), Nassor (Martin Short), and the delightfully macabre Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara), who believes that her cat, Mr. Whiskers, has prophetic dreams about her classmates. There is also a substitute teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), who gives the children a hilarious lesson on lightning and electricity which triggers the idea in Victor that Sparky can be reanimated with the right voltage. Besides Weird Girl, the Vincent Price-esque Mr. Rzykruski is one of the best characters in the film … unfortunately he’s only on screen for a few brief moments.
After Victor brings Sparky back to life, the film really begins to drag as his classmates are all trying to come up with ideas for the science fair. Naturally, once they discover Sparky, they all decide to resuscitate their own deceased pets with unexpected results. After the science experiments go awry, the film regains some energy but almost becomes a totally different movie — more like Monsters vs Aliens — until the final scene which basically brings us back to the ending of the live-action short. And I shed a few more tears here as well.
While the sagging middle section of the movie is a bummer, there are still many things to enjoy about Frankenweenie. The character design is terrific with each character having its own personality. The set design and scenery is also stunning (and lends itself very well to the 3D process), but the only set piece that has that Gothic feel to it is the pet cemetery. The rest of the town is a conglomeration of 1950s sitcom with modern references. I think had they stayed with the total 1950s feel, people wouldn’t be pointing out things like the June Cleaver-ish mother as oddly anachronistic. Major kudos, though, to everyone involved for keeping the film in classic black and white.
Fans of classic horror films will also be happy with many of the homages, from Frankenstein to Gremlins, as well as the nods to authors famous for their works of horror. Now I’m not certain of one particular reference to ‘Shelly’ — it could have just been a nod to the author of Frankenstein – but I would love to think that it was a sly reference to the great twisted TV comedy Strangers With Candy. I won’t ruin, but fans of the show will know exactly what I’m talking about.
I really, really wanted to love Frankenweenie, but the excessive padding dampened my enthusiasm a bit. It still tugged at my heart, at least the parts of the movie that were recreations of the original, but I needed my own jolt of lightning midway through. Anyone who hasn’t seen the original, however, may still find this a fun film to take the kids to for Halloween (be warned, though, that there are some moments and images during the film’s climax that could scare younger children). In the end, though, it just misses capturing the total charm of The Nightmare Before Christmas.