You have to feel pleased just for the existence of a film like Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie. A 3-D, black-and-white, stop-motion animated film, it’s a one-man blow for cinematic biodiversity. Brought growling and twitching back to life after almost 30 years, it was originally conceived as a half-hour short for Disney in 1984 to accompany screenings of Pinocchio . Disney failed to see what was family-friendly in this story of a weird boy and his dead dog, and shelved the film instead.
After the subsequent successes of Burton’s Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice, Frankenweenie resurfaced as a home video and DVD extra, but Burton always said he wanted to develop it as a feature film. Now it’s finally here, and it all feels familiar – in a good way. The additional hour of running time doesn’t add much to the story, but it doesn’t diminish Frankenweenie’s bizarre delights, either.
Born long before the 1990s’ animation revolution of Disney and Pixar, Frankenweenie looks eye-poppingly fresh in its hand-crafted, black-and-white design. It also feels soaked in the old Burton sensibility. After more than a decade of adapting other people’s work – from Sleepy Hollow to Dark Shadows – Burton is back on his own sweetly grotesque terrain, and the movie has as many echoes of his own movies as it does of classic horror films.
The suburban setting immediately evokes Edward Scissorhands, and as in Scissorhands, we meet another lost soul in that world of stifling conformity. Waifish, 10-year-old Victor (voiced by Charles Tahan) lives in New Holland, a place known for its soulless tract housing, celebrations of all things Dutch and a disproportionate incidence of electrical storms.
As in his previous animated films (The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride), Burton’s characters resemble insects as much as humans, with oversized eyeballs, spidery limbs and, often, ball-like bodies. Victor, whose surname is Frankenstein, is a loner who makes home-made disaster movies in his private refuge in the attic, all of them starring his irrepressible bull terrier, Sparky. The closest person to a kindred spirit in town is his gloomy next-door neighbour, Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), the niece of the town’s bullying mayor.
Victor’s kindly parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short), who don’t want him to grow up “you know, weird,” urge him to do something normal, like play baseball. But Victor’s foray into team sports leads to tragedy when Sparky, chasing a ball across the street, gets fatally struck by a car. Victor is devastated, but during a lab demonstration by his eccentric science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (which seems to be pronounced “Rice Krispy”), he finds a sign of hope. The teacher (voiced by Martin Landau, reprising his Bela Lugosi accent from Burton’s Ed Wood) makes a dead frog twitch when giving it a shock of electricity, so Victor decides to re-animate Sparky for a science fair experiment. A journey to the pet cemetery is followed by a trip to Victor’s attic laboratory during a raging storm.
Once the premise is established, the script by Burton’s frequent collaborator John August (Corpse Bride, Big Fish) loses some momentum. Victor keeps hiding the animated and stitched-together Sparky, and Sparky keeps doing things to draw attention to himself. Eventually the threatening neighbourhood children discover Victor’s secret and decide to go into the reanimation business themselves, reawakening cats, turtles and sea monkeys. Soon the town is engulfed in a messy invasion, reminiscent of Mars Attacks.
In its meticulous visual design, mordant humour and happenstance plotting, Frankenweenie was the original template, and it’s now a kind of summing up of almost every good Tim Burton movie: The misfit hero, the special hiding place where he creates, and the alarming world outside where chaos can so easily be triggered.