Frankenweenie (review)

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Frankenweenie green light

I’m “biast” (pro): always want to love Tim Burton’s movies…

I’m “biast” (con): …but they’re been terrible lately

I have seen the source material (and I love it)

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Tim Burton, Hollywood’s goth nerd, returns to his roots, literally and figuratively, with Frankenweenie, and thank the ghost of Mary Shelley for it. Burton’s most recent films — Dark Shadows; Alice in Wonderland — have been baroque disasters, Disneyfied parodies of Burton’s gloomy yet somehow still optimistic horror geekery. For though Burton’s best films — Edward Scissorhands; Ed Wood; Sleepy Hollow; Sweeney Todd — have been fueled by actual fantasy make-believe or merely a fantastical spirit, they’ve been sincere expressions of authentic human desperation and loneliness but also self-assurance and dignity. Alice actually is a Disney film, and its candy-colored soullessness might almost be seen as the triumph of Mouse ethos over Burton’s vision, which first got him into trouble with the studio when, before he was famous, he spent a million bucks making a charming 30-minute short, 1984’s “Frankenweenie.” Disney thought it was too scary for a family audience and buried it… only to resurrect it years later as a video bonus with The Nightmare Before Christmas, after, I suppose, the world had proven it was perfectly ready for scary funny kiddie horror flicks, and that we loved Burton’s philosophy.

And now Burton’s ultimate vindication arrives in the form of a feature-length Frankenweenie — yes, from Disney — that is even scarier, funnier, and horrorier than the short that spawned it. This is the Tim Burton-est movie he’s given us in a long while, not merely because it embodies all those wonderfully weird and humanist Burton attitudes but also because only Burton would think to make a stop-motion film in glorious, creamy, black-and-white. (The 1984 short was live-action.) The sharp, pinchy stylization of the animation lends an additional poignancy to a story that was already bittersweet.

This Frankenweenie is an homage to James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein as the 1984 short was, but the expansion to feature length by regular Burton collaborator screenwriter John August (Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) turns this into a magnificent riff on 1950s monster movies, too. (The core of the tale here follows very closely the original story by Burton and Leonard Ripps, and Burton reconstructs some of his own shots in animated form.) When grade-schooler Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan: Charlie St. Cloud, I Am Legend) loses his beloved dog Sparky to a road accident, a science lesson in class inspires him to try to harness the town’s copious nightly electrical storms in order to reanimate the pooch. Success! Sparky is alive again! Alive! But you cannot keep an undead dog a secret forever, and soon Victor’s schoolmates are wondering if it might be a good idea to bring their own dead pets back to life…

The short’s theme of intolerance was illustrated by the requisite torch-wielding mob of small-minded suburbanites who cannot abide the reanimated abomination that is adorable ball-chasing Sparky, a mob that is re-created here in hilarious form. Here, the motif gets an even more pertinent opening up via a new schoolteacher (who looks like Vincent Price and speaks with the voice of Martin Landau: 9, Hollywood Homicide), who has to fight to teach science to his students. “They like what science gives them, but not the questions,” he notes sadly… and who’da thunk that nearly 30 years on from the original short, torch-wielding small-mindedness would have made a resurgence in America. It makes the abundant gothy cuteness of this monster mash of a movie as rawly tender as Victor’s grief for Sparky. For all its whimsy, we’re living in this world.

The only disappointment of Frankenweenie, though perhaps it’s not fair to call it that, is that Burton is literally repeating himself here. I’d love for him share something new in his next film: new characters, new stories, new ideas. If it’s a choice between Alice in Wonderland 2 and a remake of Edward Scissorhands as a musical, however, I’ll take the latter, please. In today’s Hollywood, that could be an actual choice being made in a board room somewhere. Which is far more horrifying, alas, than anything here.

Watch “Frankenweenie” (1984) online via Amazon Instant Video.

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