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Frankenweenie (2012)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"It Is Alive!!! (Tim Burton's Career, That Is. . .)"
5 stars

No, you are not cracking up--Tim Burton's "Frankenweenie" really is the third animated 3-D horror comedy aimed at family audiences to be released in as many months. Not only that, it is the second to be released that was produced in stop-motion animation, a process that is rarely utilized today because of the time and expense required to pull it off properly. Of course, if you want to get technical about it, "Frankenweenie" actually got there first because it is an expansion of a short film that Burton made for Disney when he was employed there in the early 1980's and which had its planned theatrical release as a short subject attached to the 1984 reissue of "Pinocchio" scrapped at the last second when the MPAA boneheads gave it a PG rating that made it incompatible with the main feature despite its own terror-inducing qualities. By coming right on the heels of two other similarly themed films, there is the danger that some potential viewers might choose to give it a pass and while I suppose I can see their point, it would be a shame if that were to happen because "Frankenweenie" is an utter delight from start to finish. Not only is it arguably the best of the three films of its particular ilk, it is the best, most focused and most deeply felt film that Burton has put his name to since his last experiment in stop-motion animation, the underrated "Corpse Bride."

Set in the sunny and well-trimmed suburb of New Holland--just the type of place that someone like Burton might consider to be inherently terrifying--"Frankenweenie" tells the story of Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a smart, shy boy whose greatest loves in life are science, making crude 8mm monster movies featuring household items put to unusual use and, most of all, his steadfast and loyal pet dog Sparky. Worried about his lack of two-legged friends, Victor's well-meaning parents (Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara), allow him to participate in the upcoming school science fair as long as he balances things out by trying out for a sport. It is for this reason that Victor finds himself on a baseball field unexpectedly knocking one out of the park--a victory that is quickly and tragically cut short when Sparky reflexively runs after the ball to retrieve and is hit by a car. Victor is inconsolable for a while but after watching his new science teacher (Martin Landau) demonstrate how a surge of electricity can cause movement in a dead frog, he is duly inspired to try the same thing on a more elaborate scale with Sparky after digging up his bod from the strangely well-populated local pet cemetery.

Not surprisingly, the experiment is a success (anyone about to whine about the lack of a spoiler warning should consider both the name of the film and its main character before complaining) and even though he is forced to keep him hidden in the attic away from prying eyes, Victor is overjoyed to have his beloved pet back none the worse for wear outside of some stitching issues. Things begin to go south when a creepy classmate discovers that Sparky is alive and demands that Victor show him how it was done as the price for buying his silence. He agrees but then vows to himself never to do it again but in the interim, Edgar lets the secret slip to some other kids who decide to steal the formula and ride it to certain science fair glory by applying it to their animals. In a shocking turn of events, things quickly go hinky and the newly energized creatures go on a rampage of the town's annual Dutch Days and it is up to Victor and Sparky to save the day. This becomes a little more complicated once Sparky's presence is discovered and he is blamed for all the chaos and pursued by an angry mob to. . .well, I believe it was Chekov who once observed that if one introduces an abandoned windmill in the first act, it has to go off (or up, as the case may be) in the third.

It is no secret that the last few years have not been kind to Tim Burton from an artistic perspective--while "Alice in Wonderland" may have been an enormously successful film, it is still by far the worst thing he has ever done while "Dark Shadows," which I kind of liked, was admittedly uneven--and the perception of late has been that he has gotten too locked into in his patented brand of weirdness and his repeated collaborations with Johnny Depp to risk going outside his (dis)comfort zone to try something a little different. On the surface, going back to the well with a project that he has been dabbling with for nearly three decades may not seem like the ideal method of striking a new path but one of the things that is so startling about "Frankenweenie" is that even as it traffics in more of the ghoulish goofiness that is synonymous with this name, it also offers recognizable hints that Burton is finally putting his adolescent angst to rest.

Instead of the ironic detachment that has marked most of his previous work, there is a genuine emotional charge to the proceedings that he has only dabbled with in the past in the more serious-minded "Ed Wood" and "Big Fish." Yes, the film is a goof on the old "Frankenstein" films and yes, it is enacted entirely through stop-motion characters but for once, you get the sense of actual human feeling. If you have ever had a pet that you loved, for example, there is no way that you will get through Sparky's demise without getting a little choked up (especially in the matter-of-fact manner in which it occurs) or feeling a surge of joy at the shot of his tail wagging once again. Another intriguing shift is in the way that Burton depicts Victor's parents not as clueless nitwits but as people who love their son and all of his eccentricities and whose insistence that he go out for sports is borne less out of malicious cruelty than of a wish for him to make friends. Besides, Mom and Dad appear to have their own odd sides as well--at one point, we see them snuggled on the couch watching the Hammer classic "Horror of Dracula" and once the initial shock of the revived Sparky wears off, they seem perfectly okay with him.

At the same time, Burton and screenwriter John August (who has collaborated on most of Burton's projects from "Big Fish" on) have also conspired to make "Frankenweenie" a loving tribute to both the old-time monster movies that they grew up in the thrall of as well as the technique of stop-motion animation. Although it is essentially a goof on James Whale's 1931 classic "Frankenstein" (along with a hilarious reference to "The Bride of Frankenstein" thrown in for good measure), the end result is more like Mel Brooks' "Young Frankenstein" in the sense that the jokes are affectionate rather than snarky and clearly made by people who hold those older films in esteem rather than in contempt. That said, you don't actually need to have seen the originals in order to understand "Frankenweenie" but those that do will obviously have a fuller appreciation for what Burton has done here.) And while there are monsters a-plenty throughout, parents will be relieved to know that there is nothing on display here that will be too much for any but the youngest and most sensitive of viewers and its insights into the nature of loss and grief from the perspective of a child may prove to be helpful in letting kids get an initial grip on the subject.

From a visual standpoint, the film is also an absolute delight thanks to the appropriately moody and atmospheric black-and-white cinematography and the glorious stop-motion animation, clearly the ideal choice to illustrate a story about bringing inanimate matter to life. Sure, it would have been cheaper and slicker to do it via CGI animation and it might have been more commercially viable in color but after watching what Burton and his army of technicians have achieved, it is inconceivable that anyone would want to have seen it done in any other way and who knows, it may inspire a new fascination for the beauty of stop-motion and black-and-white cinematography in a new generation of moviegoers. (As for the other once-moribund technological marvel on display here--the "miracle" of 3-D, Burton handles it better in a more deft manner than he demonstrated in the converted crappiness of "Alice in Wonderland" but for the most part, all it does is slightly dampen the effect of an otherwise gorgeous-looking movie.

"Frankenweenie" was clearly a labor of love for Burton and his cast and crew, many of whom have worked with him in the past (even Winona Ryder returns to the fold as Victor's classmate and next-door neighbor, a weird girl--though not the one credited as "Weird Girl"--who is essentially Lydia from "Beetlejuice" in everything but name) and that love can be felt in every frame and the long journey from short subject to feature film could not have had a happier and more satisfying ending. The irony is that it was presumably the massive success of the less interesting and more workmanlike projects like "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Alice in Wonderland" that gave Burton enough clout to finally get the film off the ground and made exactly the way that he wanted to do it. In other words, I guess that we all owe "Alice in Wonderland" a thank-you, a notion that even Burton himself might find too strange to contemplate.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21442&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/04/12 22:41:23
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2012 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2012 series, click here.

User Comments

1/30/16 Alexis H Modern day Frankenstein through the eyes of a child genius 4 stars
9/14/13 EDDIED OK, many subplots didn't develop. No set of rules with ressurections 3 stars
8/01/13 Suzie Williams I thought it was cute. Liked how the story line differed from the original. 4 stars
2/10/13 Mami2jcn My kids really disliked it. 2 stars
1/06/13 Martel732 TIM BURTON CAN'T EVEN DO ANIMATION WELL!!!! 1 stars
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  05-Oct-2012 (PG)
  DVD: 08-Jan-2013


  DVD: 08-Jan-2013

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