Frankenweenie reanimates Tim Burton's genius
Ever since Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton has mostly been in the adaptation business, rendering dark and curlicued Sleepy Hollows, Alice in Wonderlands, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factorys. With Frankenweenie, he adapts his own work—the first animated short he ever produced for a major film studio, and the one that semi-famously got him fired from Disney back in '84. Given the crappiness of the studio's Reagan-era output, that has to be seen as a giant badge of honor or something. And for all of his faults, Burton's vision is still unlike any other filmmaker's.
In Burton's films, introverts have access to hidden worlds: bat caves, the afterlife, wonderlands, all of which become the inner worlds of lonely people. It's kind of remarkable that this entire sensibility sprang so fully formed in that original short.
It's in the new full-length as well. You pretty much know the life trajectory of any kid named Victor Frankenstein — sooner or later, he's going to tamper with the fundamental forces of nature and conquer death via the medium of lightning.
So, yes, when his weenie dog Sparky is struck by a car and killed, Victor is inspired by his new science teacher to generate some impressive innovations in the field of reanimation. Victor, voiced by Charlie Tahan, intends to submit his reassembled and electrically resurrected dog at his school's science fair, but he's actually motivated by a broken heart.
Naturally, any Tim Burton joint is going to include references to vintage films, and most of the classic Universal monsters get little tributes in the form of character designs, comic bits, and minor plot points. There's a hunchbacked Igor-looking kid in Victor's science class, a bully who looks like Lon Chaney, and one pretty great Bride of Frankenstein hairstyle gag.
The film's heavy, Mr. Burgemeister, is a happy reference to the villainous Burgermeister Meisterburger from the terrifying stop-motion childhood classic Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town. Voiced by Martin Short, Burgemeister is a fussy, bitchy next-door neighbor who hates the Frankensteins and their mutt.
The dog is great. Sparky isn't a cartoon character as much as a behaviorally accurate little canine. Sparky — both the live and reanimated iterations — circles the ground before curling up in a little ball, intently studies the backyard's fence line, and wags his whole butt whenever he sees Burgemeister's poodle.
Burton's black-and-white evocation of 1950s suburbia is rendered and lit with realism and understatement, all the better to contrast with the very Tim Burton-y character designs. Victor's classmate Elsa Van Helsing, voiced by Winona Ryder, has long stick legs; many of Victor's acquaintances are ball-shaped; pretty much everyone has dark circles around their eyes.
Burton has always been an uneven storyteller, but Frankenweenie, scripted by John August, and based on a screenplay by Lenny Ripps from Burton's original story, is tight and brief, hitting all the marks you'd expect from an animated kid's film and enlivened by Burton's visual style. The man should make more small movies like this one.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.