If You Love Something, Reanimate It
"Frankenweenie" (opening October 5 throughout San Diego) is further proof that at this point in his career Tim Burton should swear off live actors and only work in animation.
Tim Burton began his career as an animator and that is where he consistently excels. His early live action work produced some gems: "Pee Wee's Big Adventure," "Beetlejuice," "Edward Scissorhands," and "Ed Wood." But recently, his live action projects -- "Dark Shadows," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and "Alice in Wonderland" -- have been visually engaging but hollow. But none of his animation projects have disappointed, and his latest, "Frankenweenie" is a delight.
The characters of “Frankenweenie” are based on the drawings Burton did in 1984 when the original live-action short (watch it above) of “Frankenweenie” was done. The character designs and the stop motion animation all harken back to the short "Vincent" that won Burton his initial acclaim. Like "Vincent," "Frankeweenie" is done in the old school stop animation style, is in black and white, and plays off the horror genre with knowing affection.
The story is simple: Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a young boy who adores his dog Sparky. But when Sparky is hit by a car and heads to doggie heaven, Victor takes inspiration from his droll science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (exquisitely voiced by Martin Landau) and decides to bring his pup back to life -- Frankenstein style. This sets off a wave of reanimation among his classmates as the town falls under attack from the assorted reanimated (and vaguely familiar) creatures the kids have dug up.
"Frankenweenie" is like catnip for old school horror fans, we get a whiff of homage and pick up the scent of all the horror references and we go crazy with delight. The title and premise are an obvious reference to "Frankenstein" but more the James Whale movie than the Mary Shelley novel. The film won me over the moment reanimated Sparky gave an electrical shock to the neighbor poodle and gave her hefty coif a lightening bolt streak like Elsa Lancaster had in "The Bride of Frankenstein." Then, just to seal the deal, Burton gives me a kaiju bonus by having a pet turtle brought back to life as a Gamera-like monster that stomps the city like a Godzilla impersonator (there's a wonderful riff on "Bambi Meets Godzilla" for all you horror nerds out there).
There's a character named Elsa (after Elsa Lancaster), a teacher who looks remarkably like Vincent Price and voiced by Martin Landau, the actor who played Bela Lugosi for Burton in Ed Wood; and there are visual references to things like the windmill final showdown in "Frankenstein." All of this lends a wickedly fun sense of detail to the story and endears Burton to the audience as a true horror aficionado.
Burton's characters and character designs are also clever and beautifully animated. The stop motion technique (which was used so memorably in films like "King Kong") is immediately engaging and so refreshing from the computer 3D animation that Hollywood is flooding theaters with. This style of animation is comparable to practical effects; it has a more tangible quality and feels real in a way that CGI just never seems to. Burton excels in this format. His production design harkens back to German Expressionism as well as Hollywood B-movies. The lighting, set designs, and characters are presented with such breathtaking artistry that you cannot help getting caught up in the story. The theater I was at had lousy 3D so I'm not sure how the animation might look with better projection, but even as 2D it looked amazing.
In his recent live action films, Burton seems obsessed with just being weird. But in his animation he strives for something almost the opposite, making the weird endearing. Sparky becomes even more lovable when he's undead and with his stitched together parts falling off. The Vincent Price-like science teacher may look creepy but he displays a passion that win our respect (plus the fact that he's so willing to call narrow minded parents stupid for their fear of science and opening up their kids' brains). If "Frankenweenie" has a message (and since it's coming from Disney it probably had to) it might be about keeping science in the schools and stirring kids to use their imaginations. Weird is not a bad thing, but apathy, ignorance, and conformity are.
"Frankenweenie" (rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action) is a perfect way to kick off the Halloween season. And please Mr. Burton, consider restricting yourself to animated and re-animated characters rather than live actors.