“Sparky! You’re alive!” says young Victor Frankenstein after reviving his deceased dog through the current of electrical waves. Thus begins the journey of Frankenweenie, the new stop-motion animation film from director Tim Burton. Believe me when I say “journey,” because this is the kind of film that takes you on one and makes you appreciate the art of claymation, and animation in general. While Paranorman, the claymation film released back in August, was filmed in color, Frankenweenie is filmed in black and white, which is an unparalleled concept in modern day filmmaking. Although black and white films are far from being completely done, (see 2005’s Goodnight, And Good Luck and 2011’s The Artist), it is very rare to see a black and white animated film such as this.
When I first heard the news of Tim Burton expanding his 1992 short film Frankenweenie (which is a fantastic short film, by the way) into a feature length animated film, I was mixed on the issue. I have always been an avid fan of Tim Burton’s work, but lately I have found he goes for more of a style-over-substance feel and tries to make his set pieces look gorgeous (and they do!), but it comes at the expense of sacrificing everything else necessary for making a great movie. All doubts disintegrate in the final product of Frankenweenie, Burton’s first Johnny Depp-less film since Big Fish in 2004; it turns out to be a marvelous, funny, sometimes horrifying, and most times touching tale of a boy and his love for his dog.
Director Tim Burton has had a rocky few years, directing the somewhat disappointing Alice in Wonderland in 2010 and the even more disappointing Dark Shadows (which I have yet to see) earlier this year. Although those two may be disappointments, they can’t take anything away from Burton’s history in the business, which contains a great number of films, a lot of them very good. Here are some examples of the good ones: Edward Scissorhands (1990), Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Beetlejuice (1988), Ed Wood (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and, one of my personal favorites, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). The only ones that I didn’t like (that I have seen, that is) are Mars Attacks (1996) and Planet of the Apes (2001). I’m sure he has some more letdowns in there, but from what I have seen, his good outweighs his bad. To the list that contains Batman and Edward Scissorhands, add Frankenweenie, which is Tim Burton’s best, richest, and most satisfying film since Sweeney Todd in 2007.
The plot to Frankenweenie is simple. A boy loses his dog due to a car accident, learns that dead creatures react to electric volts, attempts to regenerate his dog’s life, and succeeds. What follows are a string of consequences, cover-ups, and adventurous sequences that pull you in and never let go. As can be expected from a Burton film, the animation is done ever so well. Everything feels real and the visuals, although black and white, still contain that dreary feel we’re used to in a typical Tim Burton fest. The characters have long legs, round heads, and large, circular eyes that slaps a giant I’m-definitely-watching-a-Tim-Burton-movie smile on your face. I was literally smiling throughout this entire movie. Just as it was in Paranorman, the voice acting is solid all around, especially from Martin Landau as a creepy professor, Atticus Shaffer as Edgar, and Charlie Tahan as Victor.
This movie really surprised me in that it pays a lot of homage to earlier horror movies; I would almost call this a horror movie spoof. There is a variety of creatures that roam around, which I will not spoil, but in black in white it really brings back images from early 90’s horror movies. Another way it pays homage to earlier horror movies is its characters. Examples include the obvious Frankenstein reference, a girl by the name of Elsa Van Helsing who has a huge payoff to the Dracula character in the end, and my personal favorite: the hunch backed Edgar, who looks like the classic Igor character and has the full name Edgar E. Gore (clever, I know.) There are many more references, and if you’re familiar with earlier horror movies such as Frankenstein and Dracula, you are sure to catch them all.
Overall, Frankenweenie is everything I wanted it to be and I hope and pray that Burton does something like this every now and again. Featuring some terrific voice acting, breathtaking animation, beautiful direction, and a lot of heart, this is neck and neck with Paranorman for being my favorite animated movie of the year. Don’t contemplate it. Just go with Frankenweenie. It will take you places.
Run Time: 90 mins
Rated: for thematic elements, scary images, and action
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, Atticus Shaffer, Martin Landau, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell, James Liao, and Tom Kenny
Writer(s): John August, Tim Burton
Director(s): Tim Burton