Frankenweenie – Review

Frankenweenie – Review

Film Review by FilmFellaDarren – 8/10

The Universal monster movies of the 1930s have always held a special place in the heart of director Tim Burton. He was a child who obviously grew up sitting alone in darkened rooms, engrossed in the enchanting tales of Frankenstein and Dracula.  His imagination was awakened by those old black and white movies and his filmmaking style – his black comedy, his affection for the strange and unusual, his love of death – can be traced back to the gothic styles of the monster movies from yesteryear. He would be nothing without those movies; those movies created him like Dr. Frankenstein created his iconic monster. Making a full on love-song to the monster movies of old for his latest feature is an obvious next step for Tim Burton. After a string of glossy studio remakes of well-worn stories – which made a great deal of money for studios but did considerable damage to his credibility as a filmmaker – it was clear to long time Burton fans that if he didn’t rediscover some of his (black) magic with his next film, he risked completely losing his fans forever and he’d be stuck making palatable family films for children and their parents; the dark fairy-tale world he inhabits would then forever be tainted by commercialism.

On paper, Frankenweenie looks like another sure sign Burton’s creativity as a filmmaker has long since deserted him. Even the under-tens could probably detect that this is not an original story – it’s a stop-motion animated homage to the Frankenstein story. Further than that, it’s a remake of a live action short film he made when he was just a fledgling filmmaker, which Burton brings to life by resurrecting the strange puppets styles and weird animation of another short film he made in the eighties called Vincent.  Fleshing out some of his old short films seems almost an acknowledgement that he needed to return to the drawing board and go back to his roots as a filmmaker. The idea behind this film does have some creative merit though – for one it’s a bold choice to do a family film in black and white, and whenever anyone chooses to do a stop-motion film with puppets, it shows a love of the craft of movie making since manipulating each frame is such a painstaking process.

So the question remains, has Tim Burton rediscovered some of his inspiration as a filmmaker, or is this the final nail in his coffin? Burton fans can breathe a sigh of relief – it’s clear from the first few frames of Frankenweenie that Burton’s passion for old horror cinema and his love of the art and craft of movie making are going to enliven the enjoyable little narrative in this film. For a start, the first few frames are reminiscent of his best film Ed Wood – which like Frankenweenie is a celebration of old cinema filmmaking processes.

In the first few frames we meet, not Vincent but Victor, a sunken eyed strange boy genius who spends his time making Ed Woodesque B movies with his toys and pet dog Sparky. He lives in a world entirely populated by grotesque looking saucer eyed weirdoes in a little suburban town called New Holland. A menacing Eastern European science teacher – a dead ringer for Vincent Price voiced brilliantly by long time Burton associate Martin Landau – enlivens things in this sleepy little town when he awakens the minds of the children, giving them fantasies of winning the forthcoming science fair. But alas a tragedy befalls Victor’s little dog. Stricken by grief, Victor decides to use some of the reanimation theories he learnt in science class to bring his beloved Sparky back to life. But, as any mad scientist can attest to, attempting to bring the dead back to life, and dabbling with the laws of nature, will always have unforeseen consequences…

Burton is ALIVE once more as a filmmaker! Frankenweenie is an enjoyably weird and warped family film. Burton’s ailing powers of extracting humour out of morbid and morose subject matter have been recharged once more. This is his most pleasing film since Big Fish. The story is wonderfully idiosyncratic, charming, twisted, witty, colourful and enchanting – like the Burton films of old. He clearly rediscovered his passion for filmmaking by going on a nostalgic journey to his roots as a filmmaker as well as the films he has always owed a great debt to. This film will work for young children who will be bewitched by Burton’s trademark techniques and creepy visual designs, but at the same time it will please horror movie enthusiasts who will get great pleasure out of spotting the many references to classic horror cinema. The spirited gags work on two levels.  To the casual viewer, and the children, the slapstick humour will amuse, but the cine-literate will spot that underneath the visual humour there are clever references to old monster films. A wide range of films are referenced from Boris Karloff films like The Mummy and Bride of Frankenstein to more recent films like Gremlins and he even nods to his own films like Edward Scissorshands and A Corpse Bride. In one of the many amusingly knowing references, some of the children look suspiciously like the offspring of Boris Karloff and Egor.

Burton clearly had a (James) Whale of a time, positioning his collection of terrifically odd puppets, to create looming shadows of creepy monsters as a way of paying tribute to the German Expressionist masterpieces that have always influenced his imagination, like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Nosferatu. The jokes are both playful and intelligent.

Humour, kookiness and dark charm have always been Burton’s strengths. What he has always had problems with though is creating any heart for his carnival of the grotesque creations. Often his films can be dead to the touch for the wrong reasons. So it’s somewhat surprising then that this time he manages to make his story – and I mean that literally as this is clearly the kind of childhood he had – of a little boy who just wants to bring his dog back, really resonate. The film is surprisingly moving. There is just something incredibly touching about seeing the eyes moisten with sadness on a puppet. You can file Frankenweenie alongside Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish as Burton’s most moving films.

So now for the 3D – well it’s usually at this point I report that the 3D glasses restrict the light and the extra dimension is entirely perfunctory. It’s a surprise to find that in this film the 3D enhances rather than detracts from the experience. Yes, it restricts the light, but as this is a creepy black and white film, the reduced light actually makes the film more moody. On top of that, it takes you up close and personal with Burton’s strange designs to the point where you feel you can actually reach out and join in the stop-motion of Burton’s puppets yourself. The 3D isn’t really used as an excuse to send things whizzing towards the audience, instead the effect is a sense that the creations are leaning and looming out of the screen to examine your eyeballs as you examine them. It’s a wonderfully strange sensation. If you watch the film, watch it in 3D, and as an experiment, lift your glasses at some points, without the glasses the black and white makes the film look decades old, with the glasses, the film seems curiously futuristic.  You can uniquely traverse through the decades of cinema with a simple lift of your glasses.

Spoiler alert! The following paragraph is for people who have seen the film only. 

It would be hard not to leave a comment about the ending since it was the one weak note in an otherwise entertaining film. Surely the film should end with that fiery and spectacular tribute to the end of the original Frankenstein film? The film is endearingly sweet all the way through, but that ending is too heavy on the saccharine. The fact that Victor successfully resurrects his dog in the final scene, leaves the film contradicting the original message of the old Frankenstein story which ultimately advises against playing god and dabbling with the dead. The message here is: attempting to resurrect the dead is considered a bad idea – unless you are emotionally connected to the deceased, then its ok. I was quite fond of my grandma – should I attempt to dig her up and link her to lightning in attempt to reanimate her? That’s the influence I got from the final message of the film – good job I’m not a film fan who is easily impressionable. The film would have a much stronger message if it was ultimately about a young boy realizing that he has to accept death as a part of life. The ending here means the boy learns nothing as it’s comforting rather than challenging to audiences – and shows a lack of maturity from Burton. Yes, fair enough it’s exactly the same as the ending from his original short, but it shows that as much as Burton likes dabbling with death, he is ultimately shit scared of it.

It’s a Burton film but you won’t hear a peep out of regular Burton collaborators Johnny Depp and his wife Helena Bonham Carter, since, thankfully they are not in the film. Instead vocal performances are provided by other long term Burton stalwarts like Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara.  It’s the child actors who impress the most though, particularly Atticus Shaffer who gives his Egor descendant a suitably eerie aura.

Ultimately Tim Burton is trying to reach out and inspire children sitting in the dark and capture their imaginations with monster mythology, like the old horror films once captured his. His heart is in the right place here and his affection for horror cinema creates something special in Frankenweenie.

The Tim Burton lynch mobs who had the pitch forks at the ready awaiting another Burton dud can now disperse. Frankenweenie is a weird and beguiling entertaining oddity, littered with enjoyable sight gags that nod enthusiastically to the classic horror monster movies. Burton fuses heart to the humour – this is his best film in a decade. It’s the perfect family Halloween movie and a charming delight for horror fans young and old.

If you want to see the two short films Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie is based on, view the video below:

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About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

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