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Frankenweenie 3D (2012)

October 7, 2012



written by: John August

produced by: Tim Burton and Alison Abbate

directed by: Tim Burton

rating: PG (for thematic elements, scary images and action)

runtime: 87 min.

U.S. release date: October 5, 2012


After this summer’s “Dark Shadows” it was time for the Burton/Depp union to take a well-needed hiatus. “Frankenweenie” finds Burton returning to his animation roots, reteaming with Disney for a feature-length update of a live-action short he made back in 1984. It’s a delightful and welcome return to the “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride” stop-motion style with a dash of “Edward Scissorhands” suburbia, home to typically bizarre and exaggerated Burtonesque characters. It’s a clever black and white homage to the Mary Shelley classic as well as the James Whale film and the other monster classics that the director grew up with, the kind where giant turtles terrorize kind townfolk. Sounds like a recipe for a entertaining hit. So, why wasn’t I all that excited about it for so long?

Maybe it was because it just seemed like a safe move for Burton or it could be that his history with the plucky Bull Terrier named Sparky – and even “Family Dog” for that matter – didn’t feel like anything all that new. While I am surprised that in some ways “Frankenweenie” surpassed my expectations (especially during some freaky transformative turns), it is still typical Burton. But compared to his recent mediocre (yet successful) movies, like the effects-heavy “Alice in Wonderland”, here is a more relaxed and accessible Burton, with a fun creativity apparent in both the script and the dynamic visuals.

The story takes place in a familiar suburban town called New Holland where we meet a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan, “I Am Legend”), who has two interests: scary movies and science, much to the patient confusion and dismay of his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’ Hara, who both voice multiple characters). They would rather him get out of the house and play sports or make friends with other kids, since his only real friend is his pet dog, Sparky. When the boy finally does engage in baseball, his life is shattered when he witnesses Spark get run over by a car while chasing a ball. As crushed as he is, Victor discovers a way to bring Sparky back to life after receiving inadvertent inspiration from his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (a great Martin Landau).  Victor may be delighted that his dog is back, but he also knows he must keep this re-animation a secret, something that proves to be quite a challenge with elements such as inquisitive friends, a school science fair and a town festival happening right around the corner, culminating into a perfect storm for a boy and his once-dead dog.

As much as I thought that “Frankenweenie” would be Burton on cruise control, I am pleased to see that I was wrong. It’s a sweet and scary story with just the right tone and approach, and it is all Burton. The kind of Burton that his fans long to see again.



Filled with quirky and bizarre (yet diverse) characters that are right at home delivering uncomfortable and awkward lines with perfect timing. Especially delightful are Victor’s classmates, Igor (Atticus Shaffer), Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), Bob (Robert Capron), and Nassor (Short), who all want to steal his scientific breakthrough for their own science fair admission. There’s also the very creepy Weird Girl (O’Hare), a large-eyed catatonic kid whose equally frightening (and funny) cat produces psychic messages in his poop. You know the kids in the audience got a kick out of that, because it’s poop. Victor’s activities are closely monitored by his neighbor, who happens to be the mayor, the rotund Mr. Bergermeister (Short), who withdrawn niece Else Van Helsing (Winona Ryder), seems just as isolated as Victor.

One would think all these characters would feel kind of crammed in such a story, but Burton and frequent collaborator (“Big Fish”, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, “Corpse Bride” and Dark Shadows”), screenwriter John August, actually balance out all the roles here, making it much more of an ensemble cast than one would assume. That doesn’t mean there’s less of Spark (who’s never called “Franlenweenie”) and Victor, it just provides more characters for them to interact with and more situations that demand their attention – especially when the town is exposed to some not-so-friendly re-animated creatures.

August even inserts some ethical and moral themes into the script. Sure, it’s natural to wish your adorable pet would remain alive, but is it right to bring him back from the dead? Which brings to mind one’s intention in such an endeavor. A point August brings up nicely in the form of some fine print to the formula provided by Mr. Rzykruski, who tells Victor that the intention and the heart behind such experimentation matters even more than the most planning. Some expected genre conventions are present in “Frankenweenie”, like how adults just don’t understand their kids (or children in general) and how everything predictably plays out in the end, but with artistic talents like this on display and a Danny Elfman score – who cares? Those who understand and have experienced the familial bond between a pet and their owner, knows what Burton is getting at.



Viewers well-versed in both Burton’s filmography and some select horror classics, will appreciate all of the director’s nods and replications. The decision to make “Frankenweenie” black-and-white is a smart one. It’s not only well-suited for the tone of the film, it also has the grey tones of each frame and character design accentuates the emotional beats of the story. It’s also an artistic approach that complement the puppet creations well, making them seem more handmade than computer creations. The same cannot be said for the use of 3D, which adds little to the theatrical experience. At least you don’t have to worry about the glasses muting the colors on the screen.

While the film may suffer slightly by some subplots and repetitive beats, it’s still an undeniably enjoyable animated feature. Granted it may be a bit too scary for smaller children, this fits right with the Halloween season. Time will tell if it will be as beloved as Burton’s other holiday classic, “The Nightmare Before Christmas”. Regardless, in context to his recent films, “Frankenweenie” finds Burton at his best, delivering heartfelt material in creative, touching and humorous ways.





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