When lonely young Victor Frankensteins (Tahan) beloved dog Sparky is killed, the budding scientist is inspired to re-animate his pets corpse by harnessing lightning in his makeshift attic laboratory. Once the frisky, badly sewn-back-together secret is d
How sweetly ironic it is. In 1984, anxious minds at Disney decided to dispense with the services of 26 year-old animator Timothy Walter Burton on the grounds that his live-action short, Frankenweenie, was too scary for children and thus a waste of studio resources. His sensibilities, not to mention his drawings and storyboards, were too dark, too macabre for a home in the Magic Kingdom. Now, 28 years later, so keen are Disney to be in partnership with their one-time weirdo apprentice that the familiar Sleeping Beauty’s castle logo intro to Disney productions gets a dark and stormy re-tool to herald his feature-length, stop-motion-animated, black-and-white, 3D film Frankenweenie, Burton’s first full-length directorial outing for Walt’s mouse factory.
For those familiar with the original half-hour short (which starred The NeverEnding Story’s Barret Oliver as Vincent, Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern as his parents, with a very young Sofia Coppola), available as an extra on some editions of The Nightmare Before Christmas, the plot is basically identical and a joyous lift from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but expanded with another good hour’s worth of incident, drama and delightful detail. Burton went back to his original drawings but worked to a new, witty but emotionally resonant screenplay by John August (whose work with Burton includes Big Fish and Corpse Bride). It is, indeed, potentially upsetting for small children, what with the horribly dead pet, the schoolroom frog dissection, creepy characters, scary monsters and an enraged, torch-wielding mob chasing the corpsified creature to kill him and all.
Unfortunately, the fact that it might be distressing is particularly so because the host of classic horror films referenced, paid homage to and lovingly pastiched in the monster mash-up that is Frankenweenie are no longer a staple of Saturday afternoon television. Some immortal dialogue (“It’s A-LIVE!”) and the joys of characters who are modelled on Universal and Hammer icons (like Igor, every mad scientist’s favourite hunch-backed laboratory assistant) or the oeuvres of Peter Lorre, Christopher Lee (here seen in live-action Dracula clips on the Frankensteins’ telly) and the priceless Vincent Price sadly will go right over a lot of oblivious heads these days. The terrified guy unwisely seeking refuge from a stomping, chomping thingie in a temporary loo à la Jurassic Park may ring a bell.
But for horror buffs this is constant fun in a string of inspired chuckles. The Igor, by the way, is a slobbering Lorre-lookalike kid called Edgar ‘E.’ Gore (Edgar for Poe, geddit?) voiced by Atticus Shaffer, who plays Brick in sitcom The Middle and does a disturbingly good performance as a mini-maniac. The numerous nods to the Frankenstein franchise itself include the girl next door named Elsa van Helsing (Winona Ryder, one of several Burton alumnae in the voice cast, returning to the fold for her third film with him) for Elsa Lanchester, the original Bride Of Frankenstein, except it’s little Elsa’s poodle whose poof acquires the white lightning streak.
At its heart, though, you don’t have to have ever seen a horror film to see that this is firmly a boy and his dog tale, in which a lonely, misunderstood child’s loss of his only friend, faithful companion and cutely comical star of his home movies is sufficiently heart-rending to prompt everything that follows. The boy’s clumsy needlework, tacking together parts of his dog after it has been run over (and buried) and the desperate insertion of the Boris Karloff neck bolts/spark plugs are more strangely touching than mad.
The design of the town evokes an Edward Scissorhands-like sunny suburbia that is more sitcom cosy than fright flick, making it all rather endearingly real, if oddball. Burton, August and the entire team who turned Burton’s drawings into three-dimensional silicone and latex sculptures, dinky puppets constructed over intricate metal skeletons and coiffed with real hair, and beautifully dressed sets — great in 3D — seem to have kept in mind that all the kooky consequences and frightful fairy-tale misadventures stemming from Victor’s “science project” are just part of the one big idea: creation, art, giving life to something lifeless, making something out of nothing, is a passionately personal expression of love.
Very sweet, very funny, really quite touching and exquisitely handmade, by a film lover with humour and a heart, for a like-minded audience.