Before he was Tim Burton, the director of Batman and Ed Wood, he was simply Tim Burton, a young animator trying to make a name for himself at Disney. He first gained notice in 1982 with a stop-motion animated short called Vincent. His follow-up was a half-hour live-action piece, Frankenweenie, about a boy who brings his beloved dog back to life. Unfortunately, Disney execs felt Burton had wasted company resources with a movie that wasn’t kid friendly and fired him. On the positive side, Paul Reubens was a fan of Frankenweenie and got Burton the job of directing his first feature film, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. The rest as they say is history, which has vindicated Burton. When he became a big name, Frankenweenie was released in edited format on VHS and later included, unedited, as an extra on the DVD and Blu-ray versions of The Nightmare Before Christmas. That holiday classic has raked in a ton of merchandising money for the House of Mouse, which went to the bank once again when Burton’s Alice in Wonderland made over a billion at the box office. It’s no wonder Disney allowed Burton to remake Frankenweenie, which was originally intended to be done in stop-motion.
The film is set in New Holland, an idyllic suburbia where Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is seen as a bit of an oddball by his parents Edward (Martin Short) and Susan (Catherine O’Hara). Victor’s only friend is his bull terrier, Sparky, who is tragically hit by a car. Inspired by a classroom experiment, Victor builds an elaborate array of equipment to harness the town’s frequent lightning storms and brings Sparky back to life. The little fella may be stitched together and have two bolts in his neck, but he’s his usual frisky self. Victor tries to keep the resurrected Sparky a secret, but is discovered by a hunchbacked classmate named Edgar Gore (Atticus Shaffer). E. Gore, get it?
Edgar blabs about the process to the other school kids, who proceed to bring their own deceased pets back to life. Soon, New Holland is under siege by a vampire cat, a mummified hamster, a horde of ravenous sea monkeys, and a giant Gamera-esque turtle cleverly named Shelley.
The last few years have seen Burton direct slick and garish blockbusters like Alice, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Dark Shadows. So it is a relief to see Burton return to his roots with Frankenweenie, which resembles a greatest hits reel. The screenplay was adapted by long-time collaborator John August and once again scored by the great Danny Elfman. The pre-fabricated suburbs of New Holland appear to be lifted right out of Edward Scissorhands, which was the last movie Winona Ryder did with Burton. She returns as the voice of Elsa van Helsing, the sullen girl next door, who looks and acts a lot like Lydia Deets from Beetlejuice.
Frankenweenie could certainly be considered one of Burton’s more personal films, which gives it more heart and soul than any of his recent efforts. Burton has projected a lot of himself into the character of Victor. The picture opens with Victor screening a home movie he shot using toys and Sparky as his star monster. Burton’s influences are on full display with the third act that pays homage to the classic Universal horror flicks. His hero, Vincent Price, is represented by a lookalike science teacher named Mr. Rzykruski played by Martin Landau, who dips into his Bela Lugosi voice. The nominal antagonist is Mayor Burgemeister (also voiced by Short), whose name and permanent scowl are a reference to Burgemeister Meisterburger from Rankin/Bass’s classic Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. Christopher Lee even pops in for a cameo as Mr. & Mrs. Frankenstein watch Horror of Dracula in their living room.
While the story isn’t particularly inventive, the visuals more than make up for it. The puppets are lovingly crafted and exquisitely photographed in stark black and white. Unfortunately, kids may not be impressed by a movie that isn’t CG animated or done in color. Frankenweenie is one of three horror-themed animated movies alongside ParaNorman and Hotel Transylvania, which was the most financially successful and garish of the bunch. It would be a shame for Frankenweenie to be ignored. It’s a well-made movie and at less than 90 minutes doesn’t overstay its welcome.