‘What were you boys doing on the roof?’
Tim Burton’s long gone pet puppy, approaching three decades of mortification, has come back to life. But is it the same loveable mutt or has the huggable hound become a resurrected dog of a film?
Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a bit of a loner but is quite happy at school and his favourite teacher is the enthusiastically strange science master, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). He does have a boy’s best friend in the shape of Sparky, his beloved dog, who also serves as a worthy actor in his home movies dressed as a giant monster for Victor’s Kaiju flicks. School sports can be problematic at the best of times, but Victor’s batting at a baseball match proves to be both a surprising and deeply depressing experience for the young lad. A guaranteed home-run hit sends the ball arcing into the sky but canine companion Sparky detects a game of his own. Tragically, he seeks to fetch the ball as it bounces out of the field and across a road. Our four-legged friend is struck by a car and dies; his young owner weeping over the corpse that has to be buried at New Holland’s rather well populated pet cemetery. Distraught beyond belief, hope springs for Victor when a science class reveals the power of electricity and, added to his neighbourhood’s affinity for lightning, Victor is provided with the natural power he needs to devise an ingenious plan to raise his doggy pal from the dead. And so Sparky rises, alive and licky but, of course, his reanimation needs to be kept a secret. And can his sneaky classmates be trusted? Of course not…
Frankenweenie establishes its style before the film even starts when Disney’s colourful fairytale castle logo is transformed into black and white, its cheery music replaced by an ominous crack of thunder. Like much of Frankenweenie this gives us a link to cinema’s past and, despite its irritatingly essential 3-D format for box-office returns, the film remains colour-free. When Victor declares ‘I don’t want him in my heart, I want him here with me,’ the contrast between the old and new, multiplex commercialism and cinematic heritage is striking. It’s a strange combination. Although it’s a family film, Frankenweenie does aim to appeal to adults as well, and not only the ones who are taking their kids to the screening, but also those who fondly remember watching horror films, Kaiju and animations from their youth. Indeed Frankenweenie is something of a love letter to Japanese monster movies as well as those Universal classics of the 1930s and the Hammer horrors of the 1960s and 70s.
Dedicated partly to Shelley Duvall, who was in the original short(ish) Frankenweenie (1984) and who also offered Tim Burton filmmaking opportunities early in his career when he directed Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1986) for her imaginative Faerie Tale Theatre series, the new Frankenweenie is a welcome return to form for the director. The whole has a sense of joie de vivre (or should that be joie de mort?), possibly because Burton was working with many of his long-time trusted collaborators. John August wrote the story and the production design was by Rick Heinrichs, who has worked with Burton from the very start of his career at Disney when they made the wonderful stop motion short Vincent (1982). Also of note is the superb animation work by Mackinnon & Saunders, who were originally going to be producing the effects for Mars Attacks! (1996). As enjoyable as Mars Attacks! is, the quality of the stop-frame animation here, combined with the science fiction and horror elements, does rather make you wonder if there could have been another, perhaps even more satisfying version of mad Martian mayhem. And, of course, there is another glorious soundtrack from Danny Elfman.
2012 has been a good year for feature length stop-motion animation. It has seen the swashbuckling The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (2012) and the family-friendly scary/sweet film ParaNorman (2012). Frankenweenie is a welcome addition to this strange and rather lovely subgenre. Essential viewing for anyone who loves old horror films, Frankenweenie is about as close to timeless as any contemporary film can be expected to be.