Victor Frankenstein isn’t the most sociable of boys, mostly staying indoors making movies with his best friend Sparky and only going out to go to school. When his father encourages him to try Baseball in exchange of signing his permission slip for the science fair, tragedy strikes as Sparky, is hit down by a car after chasing a ball. Victor is depressed and misses his faithful companion until his science teacher unintentionally gives him the idea to try and get his dog back.
Tim Burton is a strange director to get a foothold on. He’s Disney’s Christopher Nolan in terms of box office figures, but does not share the same director’s critical acclaim having his last few movies either being called by the numbers or being downright torn apart for the directions he takes. Despite this, Disney got a hold on the fact that Burton is a box office maestro and told him to pick any project he wanted to do with their funding. His choice was to remake a short he directed in 1984 called Frankenweenie. Back then, Disney let Burton go because of how much money was put into it with no real idea how to market it or Burton. Since then the direction and money made has changed so so much that makes sense to give the old dog another shot at the big time.
The film feels like back to basics for Tim despite the stop motion animation and the hard work from all involved into such a project. No Johnny Depp and Helen Bonham Carter for people to use as parody against him, nor is he taking on a beloved classic that people will compare to originals or the source material. This is Burton in his element with an animation form he is familiar with and able to use to his quirky, pseudo-gothic advantage as he combines Suburban 1950s America with the fiction of Mary Shelley in a loving and humorous way.
Mackinnon & Saunders, animation model makers extraordinaire, are familiar with opening the London Film Festival, having worked with Wes Anderson on Fantastic Mr Fox which opened there in 2009 and are also familiar with Tim Burton from The Corpse Bride in 2005. Because of this they are fully able live up to their name in helping him capture what made the short an enduring idea and successfully converting it to a stop motion format.
The recurring word that could be used is charming. The characters that surround Victor like Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder), Weird Girl and Edgar Gore all stand out in their own ways. Indeed, the whole voice cast are superb in putting their own stamp on the character models as well as the loving parody of the original tale of Frankenstein. A personal favourite is Mr. Rzykruski, Victor’s science teacher who is voiced by Martin Landau in a purely excellent performance; insane in the most modest and charming way as good teachers really should be.
Burton describes the music as another character and with Danny Elfman composing the soundtrack, you can definitely see what he means. The soundtrack combines the charm of the characterization with the surreal normality of the world of New Holland, blending them together and helping to accentuate nods to older horror movies even further. Elfman and Burton’s connection stretches all the way back to Pee Wee’s Playhouse and it could be argued that their connection is one of the strongest in film in terms of bringing the best out in each other, so it goes without saying that the music is one of the film’s stronger elements.
The flaws of the movie are hard to find with the package being so finely put together but it could be said that it may be too gutsy for its own good. The main plot about the boy bringing back his dog is something of an oddball to market, with death being a central plot device. As proven the United States, combined with the fact it came out in the same weekend as Hotel Transylvania, audiences might be put off by the story and the black and white elements, which might be a minor concern as in the UK, it comes out a week after HT.
The ending of the movie is also a tad cliche but somehow it feels like the right for the story, although it remains weird in it’s execution. It’s a paradox of sorts, making sense one way for the audience’s sake and the other for the story with the lessons learned and consequences that result. It’s hard to say without spoiling it and again, this might be a minor concern from the perspective of an audience looking for entertainment, but while it doesn’t spoil the film, it is a concern that lingers nonetheless.
Frankenweenie is without a doubt Tim Burton’s best movie in a long while. Lovingly crafted and put together, full of charm and whilst the story is generic standard family fare, it is enough to keep you enthralled until the very end. It may not have your typical family movie plot and look in some ways, but it is certainly something that can be defined as ‘fun for all the family’.
Frankenweenie opened the London Film Festival. It is out now in the United States but released in the UK on the 17th of October.