The tale of a young boy who brings his pet dog back to life, Tim Burton’s enchanting 3D black-and-white stop-motion animation Frankenweenie marks a return to form for the director after the less than stellar success of recent films Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.
And it’s also a return to his roots as a filmmaker, being a full-length, expanded version of the 1984 live-action short that saw him get fired by Disney for producing a film that was too scary for kids. Shelved back then, the short’s full-length remake now has the full might of Disney behind it and its scares today seem very mild.
In both its incarnations, Frankenweenie is clearly a story close to Burton’s heart and features another of those lonely outsiders who populate his work. A misfit brother under the skin to Edward Scissorhands and Ichabod Crane, 10-year-old Victor Frankenstein is a budding filmmaker and inventor who lives with his parents in the town of New Holland, a setting suggestive of late-50s or early-60s suburbia.
“Godzilla-type sci-fi films”
Victor’s best and only friend is his Bull Terrier Sparky, the willing star of the Godzilla-type sci-fi films he shoots in his attic. When Sparky gets run over by a car, Victor takes inspiration from his science teacher’s lessons in galvanism and resolves to bring his pet back to life.
The sequence in which Victor toils away in his attic to achieve his goal, appropriating his mother’s domestic appliances and harnessing the power of lightning, is an affectionate parody-cum-homage to James Whale’s classic 1931 Frankenstein.
“A nod to macabre American artist Edgar Gorey”
But the film and literary references don’t stop there. Victor’s creepy schoolmate Edgar E Gore (the name a nod both to Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Igor and to macabre American artist Edgar Gorey) wants to get in on the act and persuades Victor to reanimate a dead goldfish.
When other pupils learn the secret and start reviving their own dead pets, the experiments go wrong and New Holland is quickly overrun with monsters, ranging from a Godzilla-like giant turtle (the Japanese boy’s pet, natch) to a fluffy cat that transforms into a vampire bat.
Victor and Sparky come to the rescue, of course, bidding to save the town and their respective love interests – pretty girl-next-door Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) and her pet poodle Persephone, who gets a Bride of Frankenstein-style hairdo after an electrifying encounter with Sparky. As in the original Frankenstein, the story climaxes thrillingly with the town’s citizens bearing down on a hilltop windmill clutching flaming torches.
“A Vincent Price lookalike”
It’s the benighted townsfolk who bear the brunt of the film’s satire, particularly in the gasp-and-chuckle-inducing scene in which Victor’s science teacher, the eccentric Mr Rzykruski (a Vincent Price lookalike voiced by Martin Landau, Bela Lugosi in Burton’s Ed Wood), lambasts the schoolchildren’s parents for their stifling, narrow-minded ignorance.
Like Mr Rzykruski, Frankenweenie celebrates science, creativity and the power of the imagination. It also celebrates the art of filmmaking and films themselves, above all the horror movies of Burton’s youth.
Filmed in lustrous black-and-white at London’s Three Mills Studio, with lovingly hand-crafted puppets inspired by the director’s original early-80s drawings, Frankenweenie is a worthy successor to Burton’s previous Oscar-nominated stop-motion animation films, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, and a future cult film in the making. How widely it will appeal to today’s kids is a moot point, but for Burton fans this stop-motion horror homage is a quirky-jerky joy.
In cinemas from Wednesday 17th October.
Chosen to open this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Frankenweenie is also being celebrated during the festival by the ‘Art of Frankenweenie’ Exhibition, which runs from 17th-21st October at the Festival Village at South Bank Centre, London. The Exhibition is free to the public and features original sketches drawn by Burton, extensive props, sets and puppets, plus 3D footage from the film.