Countless versions of Mary Shelley’s monster tale Frankenstein exist and an equal number or more references have been made to this famous story, in television series, cartoons and other venues. Years ago, director Tim Burton, created his own short film called Frankenweenie, which he recently took to full feature form with the wonderful voices of Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short. While the tale might be well-worn, and perhaps to some, tediously tired, Burton’s homage to past monster films beyond Frankenstein and his creative vision work for both the youngsters and those of us kids at heart.
Young Victor Frankenstein’s (Charlie Tahan) favorite subject in school is science, but more than anything, Victor loves his little dog Sparky. Victor’s science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Landau) encourages scientific analysis and thought and sets up a science fair competition in which Victor and his classmates can compete. A terrible accident during a baseball game strips Sparky of life and a demonstration by Mr. Rzykruski gives Victor the idea and means for brining his canine companion back from the death. With the competition at hand, jealous and eager classmates, and his dog’s life (literally) on the line, Victor harnesses lightening and sets off a chain of events that lead to an exciting finale, but not before his favorite teacher faces down angry parents, calls them stupid and loses his job. Great scene, by the way!
I had the opportunity, as an offshoot of Austin’s Fantastic Fest, to sit in on a press conference including Burton, the film’s producer and Ryder, Tahan and the legendary Landau. While press conference settings do not offer the ideal situation for getting “sound” bites, I did enjoy seeing the cast and hearing from Burton himself about the process going from short film to full feature. He bragged on his delightful cast and they on him and rightly so. Burton’s animation/puppetry warrants praise and admiration, too – his characters harbor the same dreary, doe-ish eyes and dark features as most of his others (human and animated), made darker by the black and white imagery. I ask Burton about choosing to present his film solely in black and white and he said he never thought about it any other way. I say it adds to the old-school feel and Burton’s obvious homage to past monster movies.
Earlier I mentioned Shelley’s Frankenstein, but Burton, with amusing twists and surprises (and that underlying homage), makes Victor and Sparky’s tale wholly his own – even as he melds several other stories and creatures together. I wish I had had a chance to ask Burton if Victor (and all his other loner, misunderstood protagonists) reflect aspects of himself, but I didn’t get a second question. Frankenweenie surprised me by being a little (short) story made effectively better by length. It shines visually (even in black and white) and its characters are rich (albeit occasionally stereotyping). Best yet, it harbors the stuff (like keen wit and crisp dialogue) that pleases kids and adults alike.
While Frankenweenie is not my absolute favorite animated feature this year, it does sit high up on the list and wish I could have taken my grandson to the screening. Yes, it’s worth seeing again. Rated PG-13 for its scary bits, Frankenweenie will soar at the box office. Burton, reeling a tad, I am sure, from a lackluster reception to this year’s Dark Shadows, has a hit! It affords an excellent alternative to trick o’ treating this year.
Laurie’s Final Grade: A-