Show and Tell: Frankenweenie!

Through a very nice bit of luck, I was at a sneak preview of Frankenweenie, the new stop-motion animated movie from Tim Burton. The very short version of the review is this: Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s best work in years, perhaps since Big Fish. Go, go see it!

Now for the longer version of this review: the original incarnation of Frankenweenie was made in 1984, and was a live-action short film produced by Buena Vista (which was an offshoot of the Disney Empire). It was an homage to Frankenstein, and was about a young boy named Victor who made monster movies starring his beloved pet dog, Sparky. After Sparky is hit by a car and tragically killed, Victor decides to put recent science class lessons about electrical impulses and muscles to the test, by bringing Sparky back to life during a lightning storm. Victor is thrilled and his parents are concerned, but the neighbors are terrified. Sparky runs away, with Victor in pursuit, while the uneasy neighbors form the quintessential angry mob and chase them to the local mini-golf course. The boy and his dog hide in the windmill; one of the neighbors, using a cigarette lighter to look inside, sets the windmill aflame. Victor falls and is knocked unconscious, but Sparky drags him to safety, only to be crushed by the falling debris of the windmill. The angry mob of villagers neighbors realize that they were wrong about the valiant Sparky, and band together to use their cars and jumper cables to bring the heroic dog back to life again.

Frankenweenie was cute, and contained the seeds of many Tim Burton tropes. However, the Powers That Be at Disney thought the movie was too scary for young audiences; they shelved the film and fired Tim Burton. After the mainstream successes Burton had with Beetlejuice, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and Batman, Disney released Frankenweenie to the home video market, and it’s now available as a special feature on the DVD and Blu-Ray of Nightmare Before Christmas.

The story obviously never left Tim Burton’s mind, and expanding it into a full-length stop-motion animated feature has been a labor of love for him; that love shines through every frame of the new Frankenweenie. Not just his love of classic horror movies and animation, but his love for his childhood pet dog who was hit by a car. Frankenweenie plays with some of the same emotional notes as Big Fish: how do you cope with the horrible blankness that takes over after losing someone you love? The movie is utterly heart-wrenching in places, and having that emotional truth at the core of the story gave it far more depth than I had expected.

I knew that Frankenweenie was going to be a visual treat. I am a huge fan of Tim Burton’s artistic vision, and I wasn’t disappointed there. The movie is done entirely in black and white. I admit, I was half-expecting there to be some sudden pops of color throughout the movie – perhaps the flames of the burning windmill, or bright blue-white sparks of electricity – but the black and white animation strangely makes the story feel less cartoony and more grounded in reality.

The black and white film is also just one of a swarm of homages to classic horror movies. In addition to the whole idea being a tribute to Frankenstein, there are nods to Dracula, The Mummy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, Gamera, and subtle hat-tips to Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, and Peter Lorre.

Oh, and there’s another thing to pique the interest of gothy types: not only is the soundtrack classic Danny Elfman spooky monster circus music, but the Frankenweenie Unleashed! companion soundtrack has Robert Smith of The Cure doing his very best loung-lizard interpretation of the classic song “Witchcraft”.

Is Frankenweenie a good movie for the extremely-younger set? Should you take the itsy-bitsy babygoths you know to it? I think it’s appropriate for kids of all ages: yes, it’s a movie about reanimating the dead, but it’s a very sweet, heartfelt story, and I think it’s going to become a Halloween classic. (Well, a Halloween classic for people who think spooky cartoons are only for Halloween. Those of us with a more elegantly macabre worldview will happily watch this movie any time of the year.)

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