Frankenweenie

In 1984, long before The Nightmare Before Christmas or even Edward Scissorhands, a novice filmmaker named Tim Burton made a live-action short for Disney called Frankenweenie about a boy who brings his dead dog back to life. It was a little too macabre and dark for the Mouse House, though, and Burton was promptly handed his walking papers.

28 years later, Burton is back in Disney’s good graces (thank you, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland). The live action has been replaced by stop-motion animation, and the story is now feature length, but Frankenweenie is back.

Set in the warped and twisted hamlet of New Holland, the movie has the same basic plot, but enough has been altered from the original to make this version much more memorable.

Young Victor is a loner who spends his days making 8mm home movies, homages to the sci-fi schlock of the 50s. They all star his dog Sparky as the hero, saving towns from Godzillas and all manner of other mayhem. One day, though, Sparky meets the business end of a car bumper while he’s chasing a baseball, and poor Victor is devastated.

At the same time the boy just happens to be learning about both electricity and the nervous system in Science class while preparing for the annual Science Fair, and since lightning storms are as common in New Holland as creepy neighbors, he gets an idea to try to bring his beloved pooch back to life. Did I mention that Victor’s last name is Frankenstein?

Yes, the experiment works, but as fans of Burton well know, things go downhill in a hurry. Victor’s nefarious classmates catch wind of his ‘project’, and they want to try it for themselves. All the better to win the Science Fair, you know. Pretty soon the entire town is crawling with frightening creatures including mutated sea monkeys, a three-story-tall turtle monster, and a evil bat cat with fangs like a viper.

Burton makes no effort to hide his admiration for old-school horror movies like, well, Frankenstein, Dracula, and any number of Creature flicks. He also draws heavily from his own repertoire, including the ambiance and themes of movies like Scissorhands and Corpse Bride. And there’s also a really nifty twist to the windmill finale that anchored the original 1984 short.

The animation and character design is among Burton’s best ever. Everyone, particularly Victor’s fellow classmates like E. Gore (get it?) and the nameless ‘Weird Girl’, are so perfectly bizarre that they become instantly memorable. And the voice cast, which includes Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara (each in multiple roles), Winona Ryder, and Martin Landau, hits it out of the park.

The screenplay by frequent Burton collaborator John August (Dark Shadows, Big Fish) is a scary-good mixture of horror and heart, but it begins to fall apart a little toward the end. Without giving anything away, I’ll just politely question the townsfolks’ reaction to the final goings-on and leave it at that.

Despite the fact it’s animated, is named Frankenweenie, and comes with the Disney logo, youngsters beware; this is not for the faint of heart. It’s the closest thing you can get to a horror movie with a PG rating, and the 3D only adds to the shock value; all kinds of terribly unpleasant things launch themselves at the camera early and often.

Like Nightmare, it’s really aimed for an older (even adult) crowd. But if you’re part of that crowd, there haven’t been too many animated movies (only Brave comes to mind) as good as this one in 2012.

4/5 stars