“Frankenweenie” was a live-action short a then unknown Tim Burton wrote and directed back in 1984. Burton went back to his roots for a feature-length, stop-motion animated version of the short he created for Disney. And it’s a film that’s sparked Oscar talk.
“Frankenweenie” is fully in black in white (unlike Burton’s previous animated films – 1993’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and 2005’s “Corpse Bride”). The setting is the town of New Holland. A young boy named Victor lives with his parents and his dog Sparky, who’s his best friend. Victor loves to play with his dog and Sparky also stars in his home movies.
One day, while Victor’s playing baseball, a ball gets hit over the fence and into the street. Sparky runs to retrieve it, but gets hit by a car and is killed. (In case you don’t know anything about this film going in, this IS the story, not a spoiler.) Victor is heart-broken and has a hard time going-on without his friend. But then he gets the inspiration from his new science teacher to try to bring Sparky back to life. And since he’s a science wiz Victor is able to do just that. But, of course, this is going to be a tough secret to keep and having Sparky back is going to have a dramatic effect on everyone in the town.
The opening scene is a wonderfully imaginative sequence with the family wearing 3D glasses, watching one of Victor’s stop-motion movies featuring Sparky, on an old movie projector. And this sets the tone for what’s to come – a serious, but good-hearted and inventive animated film. The story is basic, but creative, and the script includes plenty of nice cinematic references to classic monster and horror films. And just as with last year’s gem, “The Artist”, the black and white is not a distraction, but instead enhances the texture of the film.
Another key reason “Frankenweenie” works is the stop-motion animation. The look is a little choppier than Aardman Studios stop motion, but this is Burton’s style (as seen in “Nightmare” and “Corpse Bride”) and it’s beautiful to look at. And the dialogue here is also quite special. Clearly there was thought put into every single line. Martin Landau stands out as the voice of the science teacher, but there are several impressive performances and many of the scenes are surprisingly deep for an animated film.
But, of course, this isn’t your typical animated film. For example, Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short each voice three characters, including Victor’s parents. The voice cast also includes Atticus Shaffer (Brick on ABC’s “The Middle”) as Victor’s classmate Edgar E. Gore (clever touch) and Winona Ryder (in her first Burton film since “Edward Scissorhands”). And because this is a Tim Burton creation you know you’re going to get memorable images and a strong emotional element.
“Frankenweenie” is rated PG, but it does include a few scenes that may be tough for younger kids. In fact, the entire theme of the film is too heavy for little ones to understand and appreciate. And there are no cute distraction characters or subplots to keep the young kids laughing while everyone else enjoys the film at another level. This was made for older kids and adults, in particular fans of Tim Burton and movie lovers who should all appreciate and embrace it.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Frankenweenie” gets an A-.
Unlike “ParaNorman” and “Hotel Transylvania”, “Frankenweenie” is not a comedy. I only chuckled once or twice during the entire film. However, it is not only the best of this year’s animated horror movie trilogy it’s the best animated film of 2012.