Tim Burton’s most recent film is the stop-motion animated Frankenweenie which ‘voices’ Burton-regulars Winona Ryder and Cathrine O’hara. Based on Burton’s early live-action short of the same name, this film is a strong homage to classic horror, produced in striking black-and-white. There is no question about it: this film is a dictatorial love child of Burton’s – but what about for the rest of us?
Frankenweenie tells the charming yet morbid story about young Victor Frankenstein who, after his beloved dog, Sparky, is run over, succeeds in resurrecting it so that the best friends are happily reunited. The plot is then extended from its half hour counterpart by introducing a stable of peculiar classmates who tries to copy Victor’s experiment in order to win the local science fair. Bad intentions now cause the plot to thicken and all of the sudden the problem becomes much bigger than a few close-minded town-folks and semi-sympathetic parents.
In making this homage to classical horror, Burton has conjured up a character gallery that draws heavily on the genre: everything from Dracula to Godzilla is represented. All of these references help build up a universe that extends Burton’s dark themes and quirky visuals. Especially the incorporation of Victor’s science teacher, who carries a striking relation to Burton’s childhood idol, Mr. Vincent Price, helps reveals the personal aspect that this film possesses. The experienced film viewer might find a certain pleasure in catching the abundance of references yet – beyond a few of the main characters – most characters portrayed lack any emotional depth and the film lands somewhere between kitsch and superficial.
A variety of narrative elements from classical horror are used in Frankenweenie and, as the title clearly hints at, structurally the plot leans heavily on Frankenstein. All of this help create a strong foundation on which to explore Burton’s own characters and universe. Also, in trying to patch out the extended time of this feature, the film is not at the top of it’s game. The plot structure is uneven and most sub-plots do not add much to the overall emotionality of the story. Still, the strength of the main plot with Victor and Sparky manages to keep the film afloat and makes the whole thing come together. This, however, does not change the fact that the film is not nearly as funny as it tries to be and if you would feel like crying instead of laughing at times, I would not be the one to blame you.
Finally, there is an interesting tension between the innocence of stop-motion and the strength of subject matter in this film. Frankenweenie reuses some of the main themes of the original Frankenstein which raises this very simplistic story to the next level. The concept of science used to upset the natural order of things is well-developed yet what really makes this film come alive is the ethical question it raises about the meaning of life: is resurrection really for the greater good?Personally, I think that the film could have been more powerful by engaging in a deeper exploration of these ethics but considering it being a Burton, and a Disney, film, there is no chance that it would ever cross that line into completely darkness.
So, is it worth spending your hard earned money and a Saturday night watching Frankenweenie? Yes! Just do not show up with expectations of grandeur. In Frankenweenie there is nothing new under the sun – yet this is exactly where its quality lies. This feature gets nowhere near the quality of the initial short yet the strength of the basic story does carry on into its new form and as a nostalgic homage to horror, the film’s minor flaws adds to the overall charm of the film. Why this film has been made in 3D, though, I have no idea. Nothing stands out effectively in this mode so if you have to choose, I recommend going old school 2D. Enjoy!