Midweek Movie Review: Frankenweenie (3D)

It’s been a while, but director Tim Burton has finally made something really worth watching: not just pretty to look at, or goofy superficial fun that implodes in its final act, but something with heart that entertains all-round. And evidently all this return to form required was for the former Disney artist to revisit his early filmography. With a few other animated films still left to open locally – ParaNorman, Wreck-It Ralph, Rise of the GuardiansFrankenweenie is easily the best animated American release of 2012 so far.

Based on Burton’s 1984 live-action short of the same name, Frankenweenie is a black and white stop-motion tale that refreshingly doesn't punt the same limp, family-friendly messages of so many other animated films. Hell, at one point a character explicitly states “Sometimes adults don’t know what they’re talking about.”

In essence, Frankenweenie is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein transplanted into retro-styled American suburbia. Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a young science whizz and outsider. His only friend is his enthusiastic bull terrier, Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor harnesses the power of lightning to resurrect him. Although boy and hound are happily reunited, the “monstrous” Sparky triggers panic in the close-minded community – and jealousy from Victor’s classmates desperate to win the Science fair.

As can be assumed from the film’s preoccupation with death, Frankenweenie is best suited for older kids and adults. It’s debatable how scared young children will be by the film, but they’re still likely to be upset by a handful of scenes, and they probably won’t appreciate the movie’s deliciously macabre sense of humour.

Although the film’s 3D is nothing noteworthy, there's still a lot to appreciate about Frankenweenie. The entire project seems steeped in love. Obviously Victor’s actions are motivated by a strong bond with his dog, but his parents (Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara) are also incredibly supportive of their oddball son. This is a pleasant change from all the movies where inter-generation misunderstanding becomes the narrative thrust by lazy default.

Technically, Frankenweenie is also lovingly made. You’ll struggle to flaw the stop-motion animation, which is smooth and shudder-free. And the memorable character designs are a treat for fans of Burton’s dark, twisted illustrative work (Think The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy and Stain Boy). Watch out for scene-stealers Weird Girl and Mr Whiskers.

Speaking of Burton’s earlier work, Frankenweenie is probably the only way you’ll ever again experience (now 40-something) Winona Ryder playing a snarky adolescent goth, a la Beetlejuice. There are, in fact, multiple nods to Burton’s filmography in Frankenweenie, as well as a tribute to classic horror films in general. For genre fans, there are plenty of in-jokes to spot. Frankenstein (of course!), Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, Gremlins and Jurassic Park are just some of the movies referenced.

Fortunately all of Frankenweenie’s cerebral pleasures are accompanied by some much-appreciated heart as well – which hasn't really featured in Burton’s films since he apparently gave himself and frequent collaborator Johnny Depp free reign to indulge their quirks. Frankenweenie is tonally most similar to Burton’s tender Edward Scissorhands. The film is as much Sparky’s story as it is Victor’s, and the terrier is a very loveable, well-animated canine. The bond between Sparky and Victor feels real, and the audience shares in Sparky’s despair when he realises what he’s become. Although I am naturally vulnerable to animal films anyway, I'll admit that Frankenweenie made me cry. Danny Elfman’s sweet, strong score doesn't keep the tears at bay either.

There has been some criticism that Frankenweenie feels like a padded short, but having watched the original recently, I personally preferred the story in its new extended format. This said, the film could have done with more character development, exploring the relationship between Victor and his bug-eyed classmates especially.

Still, Frankenweenie is must-watch for animation appreciators and Tim Burton fans alike. In fact, I’d even go so far as to call Frankenweenie Burton’s best animated film to date – more enjoyable even than The Nightmare Before Christmas. Watch this one’s reputation grow over time. I’m holding thumbs it at least receives a nomination for Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars. It's truly deserving.

4.5 stars out of 5.


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