A version of this review appears in Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. 3 1/2 of 4 stars. To read my review of the supplemental soundtrack “Frankenweenie Unleashed!,” click here.
Movie review: “Frankenweenie”
It’s a delight to see director Tim Burton unleash his unabashed weirdness with his black-and-white, stop-motion, feature-length adaptation of his 1984 short film.
With recent projects like “Dark Shadows” and “Alice in Wonderland,” the director/writer/producer has diluted his bizarre tendencies to better suit mainstream tastes, with varying degrees of artistic and commercial success.
For “Frankenweenie,” Burton, with the help of screenwriter John August, (Burton’s 2003 film “Big Fish”) expands his beloved 1984 animated horror-comedy short into a black-and-white stop-motion feature, and in the process, he gets outlandishly strange. And he doesn’t care who knows it.
For instance, the film features a big-eyed, tiny-pupiled blond moppet known only as Weird Girl (longtime Burton favorite Catherine O’Hara, who voices three characters), who regards her equally eerie cat Mr. Whiskers as a kind of oracle. The shudder-inducing feline’s feces take on the shape of certain letters, Weird Girl determines to whom the ominous droppings are referring, and they then warn that individual that something unusual is about to happen to him or her. (Something unusual besides being accosted by a poop-bearing bug-eyed lass and her hideous pet, that is.)
Creepy, right? In the movie, it’s also funny and gross and not particularly out of place.
“Frankenweenie’s” strange brew of creeps, comedy, adventure and borderline sentimental sweetness calls to mind Burton’s earlier features like “Edward Scissorhands” and “Beetlejuice.” Plus, “Frankenweenie” not only pays entertaining homage to classic horror films like “Frankenstein,” “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Mummy” but also to “Godzilla” films, “Gremlins” and the stop-motion Christmas classic “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” Burton even tips his hat to his own 1989 take on “Batman.”
In the off-kilter suburb of New Holland, young loner Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) stands out amid his classmates, even though most of them bear no small resemblance to classic horror movie characters. Victor doesn’t have any friends except his lovable and loyal dog Sparky, who stars in the short films the boy eagerly creates in the vast attic of his family’s home. His well-meaning father, Edward (Martin Short) frets that Victor doesn’t want to go outside and play like the other kids, while his caring but easily distracted mother (O’Hara again) is content to leave their son to his creative devices.
The arrival of a terrifying but enthusiastic science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) kindles Victor’s interest in science and inflames the competitive spirit of his classmates Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), Bob (Robert Capron) and Nassor (Short again), who are determined to emerge victorious in the upcoming science fair.
Victor’s father agrees to sign his son’s science fair permission slip only if the boy tries his hand at baseball, and Victor reluctantly agrees. With a bit of encouragement from his quietly lovely classmate Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder, another frequent Burton collaborator), the niece of the Frankensteins’ crotchety neighbor Mayor Burgermeister (Short doing triple duty), Victor manages to hit a homerun in his first game, but his triumph is short-lived: Sparky tries to retrieve the ball, gets hit by a car and is killed on impact.
When Mr. Rzykruski dramatically demonstrates that the nervous system can respond to electrical stimuli even after death, Victor is inspired to dig up Sparky, stitch his wounds and attempt to bring him back to life. The youngster is overjoyed when the experiment works, but he suddenly faces the issue of hiding his reanimated pet from his parents and the townsfolk, who surely won’t understand.
Unfortunately, Sparky escapes his attic hiding place and Victor’s sneaky classmate Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) spots the dog. Edgar manipulates Victor into showing him how he reanimated the pooch but soon breaks his promise to keep the secret a secret, putting the community of New Holland in supernatural jeopardy.
Along with this year’s equally engaging and macabre “ParaNorman,” “Frankenweenie” vividly illustrates that stop-motion animation is still a viable art form even in the computer age and that even youngsters can enjoy cinematic scares when they’re done right.
Even better, the quirky story of a boy and his dog shows that Burton has still got plenty of wonderful weirdness to bring to the big screen.