Frankenweenie may be Tim Burton’s most personal film. Based on a short he made in 1984, it gets to the heart of Burton’s obsessions, and also brings back some actors he hasn’t worked with in a while. While watching, I was reminded of some of his earlier films, as well as the influences that made him who he is. Oddly, though, it does not feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter.
Shot in black and white (the first IMAX film to be done so), Frankenweenie tells the tale of Victor Frankenstein, a very obvious reference to the story and film of the same name. Victor is obsessed with three things: monster movies, science, and his dog, Sparky. He has no friends, and the film opens with his own handmade film, in which Sparky saves the day from a monster.
Sparky is accidentally killed, and Victor, inspired by his new science teacher (with the face of Vincent Price and the voice of Martin Landau doing Bela Lugosi) goes to work in the attic, reanimating Sparky with electricity. When the other kids in the neighborhood get wind of it, they all try it, unleashing a menagerie of monsters on the neighborhood. As with the Universal film Frankenstein, it all ends in a fiery windmill.
Frankenweenie is charming, and will appeal to anyone who shares a love of those old Universal films, Hammer films, or Japanese monster movies, as Burton tips his hat to all of them. There are all sorts of inside jokes, such as a turtle named Shelley, the boy who wants to help Victor, complete with hunchback, is named Edgar Gore (E. Gore, get it?). The poodle next door, after a jolt of electricity, gets a white shock down her pompadour.The voice actors, including Landau, are Burton veterans, with Winona Ryder basically playing the character she did in Beetlejuice (but with the name Elsa Van Helsing, a reference to both Bride of Frankenstein and Dracula), and Catherine O’Hara voicing three different characters. Even Christopher Lee manages to get a cameo, albeit without any effort on his part.
The film looks and sounds great, with the puppets by McKinnon and Saunders, the photography by Peter Sorg, and the usual creepy score by Danny Elfman. However, I didn’t love the film, I only liked it. The script, by John August, despite the jokes for adults, is kind of ho-hum. The ending, with the town overrun by monsters, is busy and doesn’t make sense–why did these things happen to these animals, but not to Sparky? I will admit that watching sea monkeys turn into gremlins is funny, though. Also, the one non-white character, a Japanese boy, edges too closely into stereotype.
On the plus side, there’s a great speech by Landau at a PTA meeting in which he scolds the parents for being ignorant and afraid of science. I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen Burton get political, which of course is insane because believing in science should have nothing to do with politics. But welcome to 2012 America.
My grade for Frankenweenie: B-.