The idea behind Frankenweenie was born in the early ‘80s, when Tim Burton was a humble Disney animator, somewhat out of place working on projects such as The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron. A little confused about what to do with the scruffy-haired muse, Disney commissioned two short films that he promptly produced. The first was Vincent, an animated short story about a young boy who thinks he’s Vincent Price, and the second was a live action short about a science-mad kid who resurrects his pet dog. Despite remaining unreleased, they arrested the attention of critics, landing Burton his big break as director of, um, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.
In the ensuing decades Burton’s original boy-and-his-dog story lay dormant, a forgotten relic in the story of his meteoric rise to fame, never gleaning the glories of general release: until now.
The new and improved stop-motion revamp has breathed new life into the old story.
Charlie Tahan plays Victor Frankenstein, an ambitious and spritely pre-teen who likes nothing more than to wile away time in his attic making amateur monster movies starring his pet dog Sparky.
Victor’s father is a little concerned about his son’s eremitic tendencies, and in a bid to get him outside ushers him away from the camcorder and towards the baseball field. When Victor obliges, however, tragedy ensues. Sparky chases the ball into the road, and in a wonderful point-of-view set piece, meets a grizzly end in the wake of an oncoming vehicle.
With the arrival of mad science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), grief-stricken Victor is inspired to bring his lost pet back to life. He uses the techniques he learns in class to channel electricity into Sparky’s body, bringing him back to life.
His plan is not fool proof, however, and Sparky consistently escapes his home in the attic. As such it’s not long before word spreads about the dead dog walking, and the entire youth of the town attempt to recreate Victor’s nefarious experiment.
While the film is generally pro-science, the dangers of ‘bad science’ are emphasized when the small town turns to Bedlam as all manner of gruesome monsters are let loose, including, in one of the film’s more obvious references, a pet tortoise called Shelley.
The raison d’être of the piece, however, is not the plot but the visually illustrious world in which it is played out. Shot in black and white and rendered in 3D, Frankenweenie is a seamless blend between old and new. Even scenes in the Frankenstein household harbour a rich palette, more than justifying the dearth of colour. Despite it’s family demographic, the film is more akin visually to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Demille’s The Cheat than Hotel Transylvania or Paranorman.
What’s more, the silicone puppets are vividly expressive, their idiosyncrasies brought out by dexterous animators and a talented voice cast. Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara in particular stand out as the strikingly personable Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein, softly spoken and intimate, a wonderful contrast to Martin Landau’s melodramatic Mr. Rzykruski. Landau’s own performance is hilariously funny, generating big laughs through his thick Eastern European accent.
Nods to Christopher Lee, Gremlins and Godzilla punctuate a film littered with classic allusions, and whilst Frankenweenie cannot hope to rank alongside the greats it references, it’s a formidable retrospective with a lot of heart and comes highly recommended.