Expanded from the same 1984 short film that got Tim Burton fired as a Disney animator, Frankenweenie (which Burton has made under Disney’s auspices, ironically enough) comes on the heels of the terrific ParaNorman and the surprisingly not-bad Hotel Transylvania. This fall particularly, Hollywood’s animated movies for kids have made a home among long-leggedy beasties and things that go bump in the night. (Pixar will re-release Monsters, Inc. later this year.) With all this competition, can Burton’s new movie stand out? It not only can do that, it also gives Burton’s career a much-needed boost after the failure of Dark Shadows.
The plot revolves around Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), who is not a scientist with a God complex but a scientifically gifted middle-school student whose only friend is his beloved dog Sparky. Victor is shattered, then, when Sparky is run over by a car and killed. However, a demonstration by his intense, Slavic-accented science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) inspires Victor to use an electrical storm to spark Sparky back to life.
Where the original short film was live-action, this movie features stop-motion animation by Mackinnon & Saunders, the same British firm that did the puppetry for Burton’s Corpse Bride. Some of the scenes are shot-for-shot re-creations of the original, like the beguiling opening sequence, showing Victor’s homemade sci-fi monster movie with Sparky dressed up as the monster. Inevitably, screenwriter John August has to add to the original’s plot, and while not all his material is the most inspired, he does come up with a provocative subplot about the teacher, who sabotages himself magnificently after some of his students get into accidents trying to follow his instructions. A nifty sequence ensues as well when Victor tries to sneak electric appliances to the attic for his experiment, his stealthy nighttime movements in sync with the soundtrack of the horror movie that his parents are watching. (The movie is Terence Fisher’s 1958 Horror of Dracula, a nice touch.)
The biggest change comes in the mayhem during the movie’s climax, which is brought about not by the re-animated Sparky but by Victor’s fellow students, who hear about Sparky and try to bring their own dead pets back to life. The sequence shows Burton at his morbidly funny best but also shifts the movie’s focus from mass hysteria and fear of the unknown to science’s unintended consequences. (Although, you’d think people would make a bigger deal about Victor’s achievement. I mean, the kid figures out how to reverse death. That’s pretty big, right?) None of this makes Frankenweenie as good as this year’s best animated films or as precise as the 1984 original. However, it is enough to make this movie an honest piece of entertainment that doesn’t come off as wheel-spinning pastiche. That’s not as big as being able to reverse death, but it’s something.
Voices by Charlie Tahan and Martin Landau. Directed by Tim Burton. Written by John August, based on Lenny Ripps’ screenplay. Rated PG.