Tim Burton has come full circle with “Frankenweenie,” a remake of his original 1984 stop motion animated short film. Perhaps returning to his roots did the visionary director a great service since this “Frankenweenie” is the best Burton film in well over a decade.
With films like “Ed Wood,” “Mars Attacks” and “Edward Scissorhands,” it’s no surprise that Burton released a full length, black and white 3D animated movie. With his recent streak of lesser quality films compared to his first decade and a half in Hollywood, Burton had the potential to pioneer, and consequently put the kibosh on, the future of black and white, stop motion 3D animated movies. But thankfully he dodged that bullet because “Frankenweenie” is good. Really good.
Following the same structure as the Mary Shelley classic, “Frankenweenie” is about young Victor Frankenstein in quintessential American suburbia, whose only friend is his dog Sparky. After a terrible accident kills Sparky, Victor, a budding grammar school scientist, brings him back to life via electricity. And like the classic story, Sparky comes back as a stitched-together sack of flesh, which gives the small suburban town the fright of its life.
Burton, with a script by John August, gives us a feast of delights. Lovers of classic horror movies will revel in the constant nods to old stop-motion monster movies and Universal and Hammer’s gothic fright fests. Just about every frame is filled with homages to Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy or Godzilla.
But “Frankenweenie” isn’t just pastiche. Like Burton’s early films, he displays his contempt for prosaic suburban life. Like the brilliant “Edward Scissorhands,” “Frankenweenie” wittily criticizes mundane small town gossip as well as provincial and ignorant fears of science. Oscar-winner Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) provides the voice of Victor’s angular science teacher Mr. Rzykruski, who, through humorous monologues, proclaims the importance of science and vindicates the ignorance of those who fear it. The threads of science woven throughout the film lift “Frankenweenie” well above being a simple boy-creates-monster flick into a meaningful portrayal of education, morality and ethics while keeping things kid-friendly.
Burton provides an enormous amount of material for adults to soak up, but at its heart, “Frankenweenie” is quality family entertainment. Burton has the knack to making ghouls, monsters and dead dogs adorable and loveable, evident from the hordes of merchandising and plush toys from “Nightmare Before Christmas.” Kids will connect with Victor and Sparky or with the other hilarious bumbling kids in town as they try to create their own Franken-monsters for the upcoming science fair. Younger children might be frightened by some of the monsters (the 3D effects could make it even scarier at times), though most of the creatures are funny and most children (sadly, most young adults, too) may not get the old horror movie references.
Classic Burton alums like Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Wynona Ryder flesh out the voices with a Burton cast reunion. Even Burton frequenter Christopher Lee makes an appearance, albeit on TV in a clip from the Hammer classic “The Horror of Dracula.”
“Frankenweenie” is as visually impressive as Burton’s previous two stop motion films, “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “The Corpse Bride.” Burton is at his best when he can soak the production design with his indelibly gothic style and he makes wonderful use of 3D. Visual seeds planted into Burton’s other films make their way into “Frankenweenie,” but most noticeable is the giant hilltop windmill, a staple of horror movie imagery from James Whale’s 1931 “Frankenstein,” starring Boris Karloff.
Composer Danny Elman brings his expected charm and humor to the music, providing a brief nod to Franz Waxman’s “The Bride of Frankenstein” and a gentle, emotional theme for Victor and Sparky’s unbreakable bond before taking a delightfully campy turn into old-fashioned monster movie music.
Tim Burton finally got his groove back with “Frankenweenie.” It’s the perfect family movie to see this Halloween season. Maybe, just maybe, it will even spark some new appreciation to those horror movies that came before it.