Frankenweenie (2012)

Featuring the Voices of: Charlie Tahan, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Christopher Lee, Conchata Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny.

Director: Tim Burton
Rating: PG (for thematic elements, scary images and action.)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Date: October 5, 2012
Home Video Release Date: TBD
North American Box Office: $TBD

Tim Burton Animation, Tim Burton Productions, and Walt Disney Pictures.

Written by: John August (screenplay); adapted from the short film “Frankenweenie”, written by Tim Burton and Leonard Ripps.
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★★ (out of 5 stars)

Recalling some of Tim Burton’s finest work, Frankenweenie is a wonderfully made and surprisingly touching stop-motion animated wonder.  Adapted from Burton’s second completed work, his 1984 live-action short film of the same name, Frankenweenie shows the director engaged and clicking on all cylinders for the first time in a really long time.  In my estimation, it would come as a great shock to not see Burton score an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film when the Oscar nominations are unveiled in January 2013.

Telling another one of Tim Burton’s darker and more macabre stories, but in an endearing and accessible manner for all viewers, Frankenweenie deals with the difficult childhood realities of loss, as well as the youthful hope and innocence of reincarnation.  We are introduced to Sparky, a lovable terrier and perfect pet to the Frankenstein family, especially for their son Victor (Charlie Tahan).  Victor is a lover of movies and spends his spare time making elaborate and inventive, amateur-quality horror movies, which feature his canine companion as the star.  Pushed by his parents to take part in an activity, Victor begrudgingly joins the local baseball team and Sparky is there with the family watching Victor’s first game.

Sparky of course thinks that the throwing of the baseball by the pitcher is merely a larger,  more expansive game of fetch.  So naturally Sparky involves himself in the action.  When Victor improbably smashes a fastball deep into the outfield, Sparky gives chase and then…a terrible accident occurs which changes the Frankensteins lives forever.

With such a sad and unmistakable moment occurring fairly early on in the film, some parents may take pause in letting their kids see a film about a dog that loses its life.  Impressively, Burton and screenwriter John August (writer for other Burton films including The Corpse Bride, Big Fish, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factor) handle the tragedy with great sensitivity, opting for less is more in this regard.  The film propels through tougher moments with unexpected accessibility, avoiding a very easy dovetail into exploiting uneasy and difficult concepts and themes.  Burton and August do a great job in avoiding the wrong type of reaction from potentially nervous audience members.

Victor draws inspiration from his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (a spirited Martin Landau), who shows Victor’s class that when applying electricity to a deceased frog, the muscles still respond accordingly.  Extrapolating that idea forward, Victor concocts a Rube Goldberg-style device to attempt to replicate the same reaction with Sparky, hoping that the nightly lightning storms which plague his town can provide just enough electricity to shock Sparky back to life.  It comes as no spoiler to reveal that improbably, Victor is successful and Sparky, wearing the scars of his accident, snaps back to consciousness.  Recognizing what he has accomplished, Victor feels Sparky must be kept a secret.  Sparky has other ideas naturally and soon the town of New Holland see Sparky running all over town, with his classmates and other community members wondering if they might be able to bring their beloved and lost pets back to life as well.

Frankenweenie is an unmitigated joy, even if Burton nearly lets the film get away from him with an overly rambunctious third act.  Even with the tonal imbalance, Frankenweenie is a marvel to take in, from the seamless stop-motion animation to Danny Elfman’s brilliant monster movie influenced score.  Effectively, Frankenweenie is not just a tribute to the 1931 classic horror film most may expect it to be, but also offers nods and winks to the Universal Pictures horror movies of the 1950s, delivering a more heartfelt homage than the recent Hotel Transylvania.  Certainly that would be expected here, but Burton strikes a heartfelt, almost uniquely comforting tone to his quasi-horror story that left me surprised, thrilled, and completely satisfied.

From top to bottom the film is expertly crafted, with the aforementioned animation working flawlessly, and the black-and-white filter adding to the fun.  There are some wonderful vocal performances from Burton’s past standouts, including Oscar-winner Landau (from Burton’s “Ed Wood”) as the influential science teacher and Winona Ryder, who rediscovers her muted and hushed tones she utilized to great affect in her earlier career and notably in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands.  Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara are great as Victor’s parents and every major character is given a voice that adds a believable element to the fantastical world Burton and his team have created.

Solidifying the film’s foundations, Danny Elfman’s score provides a fantastic unifying connection between the story and the landscape the film plays out in.  Burton relies on Elfman a lot in the film, and Elfman’s precocious compositions become almost their own character, lingering around most every crucial scene.

Frankenweenie is weakest when it should really soar and this is specific to the third act.  Acknowledging that frustration, should in no way diminish the fact that Frankenweenie is a  thrilling and entertaining film.  My 6-year old sat intently the entire time, hardly moving a muscle, and raving about the movie in the car on the way home.  As a fan of Tim Burton, who has had to apologize for quite a lot recently, Burton has rekindled something within himself by revisiting the short film that placed him on the map some 28 years ago.  What Burton lacks, at least in roughly the last decade or so with his work is a poignancy or compassion for his main characters and subjects.  Victor’s connections to Sparky feel as real and relatable as any connection one could ever have with a pet, or even a loved one, human or otherwise.  Frankenweenie is affecting and heartfelt, dazzling in its visual achievement and quite humorous in all the right moments.  This is Tim Burton’s finest film in years.

SHOULD I SEE IT?
YES
  • More accessible than you may think, Frankenweenie is in fact a film that you can watch with much of the family.  The scares are non-existent and the themes related to death and loss of a loved one are handled with dignity and care.
  • Tim Burton fans should be delighted that not only as Burton revisited his breakthrough short film, but that he has made his finest film in a long, long time.
  • Among the finest animated films of the year.  The technical mastery and atmosphere of the film, along with great voice work, makes this a thoroughly enjoyable ride.
NO
  • Although handled with care, the themes present in Frankenweenie may still be unsettling for some families who may not be ready or able to have a conversation with younger viewers about personal loss.
  • I can hear many of those who complain about Tim Burton films being all look and no substance, perhaps pointing to certain elements here that would validate that point.  Film surpassed those concerns for me personally, but this has nonetheless been a complaint for some.
  • The riotous third act is so different in tone and scope, that some have cited as a reason to pan the film.
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