Movie Review: Frankenweenie
A perfect blend of creativity, technology, artistry and heart, FRANKENWEENIE is a love story about a boy and his dog that began some 50 years ago. It’s also a love story about the magic of moviemaking and yes, even, a love story about Burbank, California. FRANKENWEENIE comes from Tim Burton’s heart and is brilliantly brought to the big screen thanks to the filmmaking tools in his creative arsenal. As a young boy, Burton had a dog to whom he was very attached. Sadly, he was told that the dog suffered from distemper and wouldn’t live very long, which may have served to increase both Burton’s love and devotion, and his ultimate sorrow when the dog finally did pass many years later. The love and loss of a pet is something one carries with them for life; so is one’s love for movies and moviemaking. Combining both, in 1984, Burton, a young artisan in the Animation Department of Walt Disney Studios helmed a stop-motion animated short film blending a story about a boy and his dog with the elements of “Frankenstein” and other classic horror movies of the 30's. Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints, Burton was unable to realize his vision of making this story into a feature length film - unable to realize that dream until now. FRANKENWEENIE is the masterpiece of Tim Burton’s storied career.
Victor Frankenstein is your average American kid - or is he. Living in the town of New Holland, his home is in a nice middle class neighborhood in a nice cookie-cutter home, his parents are your typical suburban 1950's/60's couple, local carnivals, football games and community gatherings are the highlights of the year, white picket fences and flower beds dot the street and, school, well, let’s just say that education is of the utmost importance to Victor - education and his dog Sparky. And while all of this sounds really great, it’s a bit concerning to Victor’s dad as with all the “nice” things in New Holland, and all the “nice” people, Victor should be out playing with friends and not holed up in the attic in his own science lab with Sparky. Friends? Hmm. I don’t think I mentioned Victor as having friends.
But sadly, a dark cloud falls on New Holland and the Frankensteins when Sparky is killed in an auto accident. With a full graveside burial service, Sparky is laid to rest under a large tombstone atop a hill in the local pet cemetery. Sadly, Victor just can’t accept that Sparky is gone. Devastated by the loss, Victor is now truly alone, something that causes his parents great worry. But thanks to a dedicated science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, something “sparks” inside Victor. While demonstrating the effects of electricity on a post-mortem frog, Mr. Rzykruski shows his class how the muscle memory of organs remains after death and can be “recharged” with electricity. Not dead? Recharging? Electricity? Can this be Victor’s answer? Can he bring Sparky back to life?????
Sneaking off to the cemetery, Victor reclaims Sparky and brings him back to his attic laboratory. Employing enough gimmicks and tricks to make Ben Franklin jealous, Victor pulls out all the stops as he attempts to generate enough electricity to bring Sparky back to life. With a thunderstorm booming and lightning in abundance, using balloons, umbrellas and yes, a kite, as lightening rods, Victor puts his plan into action. And when the rain stops, and the clouds pass and the electrical current stops pulsating...
“He’s alive! He’s alive! Sparky’s alive!” Victor’s experiment worked! But he quickly realizes that he can’t tell anyone lest they think he’s “weird”. Attempting to hide Sparky in the attic, Victor’s best laid plans fail thanks to Sparky’s canine curiosity and playfulness and it doesn’t take long for creepy little Edgar E. Gore to realize what Victor has done. Equally excited, as this experiment could be the answer to Edgar’s science fair entry dilemma, Edgar swears himself to protect Victor’s secret. (yeah, right) But, it’s not long before Edgar has divulged the secret of Sparky to all the kids on the block - Nassor, Weird Girl and Toshiaki, each of whom decides to employ Victor’s electrifying methods on their own deceased pets. Needless to say, things don’t go quite so smoothly and a man-made monster squad is soon wreaking havoc on the town.
Will Victor help his classmates and save the town from the monsters that have been unleashed? And what of Sparky? And did anyone pay attention to the most important lessons of Mr. Rzykruski - the ones about the heart?
Employing the voicing talents of, among others, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara as the Frankensteins (and others), Winona Ryder as Victor’s next door neighbor Elsa Van Helsing, Atticus Shaffer as Edgar, the legendary Martin Landau as Mr. Rzykruski and newcomer Charlie Tahan as Victor, the voice talent is off the charts.
Paying homage not just to his own beloved pet, but Burbank, horror films and beloved friends like Vincent Price, FRANKENWEENIE is filled with the most sweetly poignant touchstones one could ever imagine. Sartorial characteristics of each stop motion puppet will bring a smile to your face and your heart as one easily identifies those near and dear to Burton. The character of Victor actually resembles not only Burton, but Burton fave and longtime collaborator, Johnny Depp, who in many ways, helped set the stage in “Edward Scissorhands” with the world created in FRANKENWEENIE. Elsa Van Helsing, voiced by Ryder, is almost the spitting image of Ryder’s “Beetlejuice” character from funky pig-tailed hair to 21st century goth clothing. Joyous is the creation of Mr. Rzykruski who, while voiced by another Burton fave, Martin Landau, is clearly the face of Vincent Price (whose last film appearance before his death was in Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands”). A stop-motion standout is the character of Edgar E. Gore. With Atticus Shaffer recalling vocal intonations of the famed Peter Lorre, the character even bears strong resemblance to one of Lorre’s most famous characters while the mummy-intoning Nassor looks strangely like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein.
While the entire 1984 short is seamlessly inserted within this new feature length film, it fell to longtime Burton collaborator, screenwriter John August, to beef up the storyline. With the love between a boy and his dog the heart of the story, August celebrates the nuclear familial unit with great construct and dialogue among the Frankensteins themselves. And I can’t say enough about incorporating the importance of education and science into the fold with academic and life lessons presented through the character of Mr. Rzykruski. Not only “sparking” Victor’s interest in science and the story itself, the manner of teaching and the interest generated to the students serves as a fitting example to teachers and students everywhere. Not “simply” padding the story of the short film, August creates intertwining sub-plots for each character that never feel disjointed or out of place from the primary thematic elements.
Returning to his animation roots, it’s as if FRANKENWEENIE has also “recharged” Tim Burton. With FRANKENWEENIE, Burton has done something that no other director has ever done. Not only is the film presented in black and white, but the entire palette - sets, costumes, puppets - were constructed and designed using only the grey scale. Sets were painted in shades of grey. Puppets colored and painted with greys, whites and blacks. Only one or two spots of color are present within the actual sets - a red tabasco or wine bottle and some pale, pale embroidery on an Elsa Van Helsing dress. What many forget is that historically, black and white films were actually shot with costumes and sets in real life color, albeit often outrageous in order to attain the perfect black and white levels, and thus, only presented through black and white film. And while Burton has presented films in black and white before FRANKENWEENIE, most notably the Oscar winning “Ed Wood”, he has not worked in a world of greys.
For Burton, it was a no-brainer to work only with shades of grey. “We [discussed] that and in ‘Ed Wood” too, which I shot in black and white and obviously - you don’t paint Hollywood Boulevard black [laughing] - you have to deal with the color issue. The color, especially with red, it changes. . . If you do it in the grey scale, you know what you’re getting, number one. And number two, it’s less work for the animators as well. And that was almost the crucial thing. Because [the shots] are so long, it can take an animator a week to do a shot and because we’re going for a certain lighting, we just felt that for the animators on the set and for the DP and people lighting the set, you want it to be as close to what it’s gonna look like. I think it changes the animator’s vibe. They feel more like what they’re in. . .With the whole thing in color, it just would have looked like a cheesy children’s morning stop motion show as opposed to being able to feel the environment as an animator. It’s like the difference, I think, for an actor, if they’re on a green screen and acting versus in a real environment. They get the reality of it more. So, that was important.” As the final product proves, Burton’s decision was sound as the visual result is not only beautiful and nuanced, but compliments and mirrors the thematic story elements celebrating the simplicity of life in a simpler, “more perfect” world - a world that can still be seen through a child’s eyes.
After an almost 30 year hiatus since the landmark short film FRANKENWEENIE, Burton and company returned to the studio where they remained for 2 ½ years creating this magical world. Over 200 puppets were created in various stages of redress, including 14 Victors and 16 Sparkys, of which 8 were dead and 8 alive. Puppeteers went into overdrive in creating fantastical monster smash-ups of Sea Monkeys, Mummy Hamsters, Godzilla Turtles and even a Vampire Bat Cat. The attention to detail is meticulous and runs from characters to set design. Tiny little table top hi-fi record players, miniature Tupperware filled with olives and deveined shrimp. I was fortunate enough to see up close some of the actual sets and props from the film. Jaw-dropping is the only word to describe the mastery. Key to this mastery is not only Burton’s genius, but that of Animation Director Trey Thomas. Thomas, together with producer Allison Abbate, previously worked with Burton on his earlier stop-motion films, “A Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.” Thomas further honed his skills at the stop-motion powerhouse Laika Studios working on “Coraline” which, in addition to being stop-motion animation, was shot in 3D. Although FRANKENWEENIE isn’t lensed in 3D, it is presented in 3D and calls for artisans who can apply 3D elements to conceptualization. Thomas is at the top of his game here.
And of course, what would a Tim Burton film be without a score by Danny Elfman. Interestingly, Elfman brings new sonic texture to FRANKENWEENIE that has a softer, more romanticized feel to it, just like the beauty of Burton’s memories of a boy and his dog.
It’s Alive! It’s Alive! FRANKENWEENIE lives and breathes perfection from start to finish.
Victor - Charlie Tahan
Mr. Rzykruski - Martin Landau
Elsa Van Helsin - Winona Ryder
Edgar E. Gore - Atticus Shaffer
Mr. Frankenstein/Mr. Burgermeister/Nassor - Martin Short
Mrs. Frankenstein/Weird Girl/Gym Teacher - Catherine O’Hara
Directed by Tim Burton. Written by John August based on a screenplay by Lenny Ripps, based on an original idea by Tim Burton.