Tim Burton’s much hyped re-imagining of one of his earliest films, the 1984 short film of the same name, delivers on its promise of scares, thrills and laughs in spades. All wrapped up in a beautiful homage to the horror/sci-fi films that inspired and influenced Burton greatly, which is both technically astonishing, incredibly loud and not particularly child-friendly.
Frankenweenie tells the story of Victor Frankenstein (I know), a young boy living with his parents and his beloved dog Sparky, in a fantastically realised 50’s American suburbia that seems only to exist in science fiction films and atomic-age adverts. He attends primary school along with a group of horror film misfit children (those involved in the science-fair sub-plot are like an expanded Lock, Shock and Barrel) and plays with Sparky in the afternoons. One day, the new science teacher at the school, Mr. Rzykruski, demonstrates the effects of electricity on the body of a dead frog and for the next hour or so, the Frankenstein plot falls nicely into place, building to a suitably infernal climax (involving a fun-fair, a Gamera tribute and escaped sea-monkeys), one which is both happy and sad, exciting and nail-biting, and which does justice to what has gone before.
There are some really touching and sad scenes, the build-up to Sparky’s accident is perfectly paced and, with its aftermath, really rather moving. Then its on to business as usual. Indeed, the biggest problem I had with Frankenweenie is that everything about this film, from its promotion to its plot right down to its very title, makes it all very predictable. Until the last twenty minutes or so, we merely tick off plot points as they happen. This is, I suppose, the biggest problem with remaking or re-imagining any classic story, everybody knows how it will end. And to Tim Burton’s credit, he really throws out some unexpected surprises and events in the last third of the film, preventing it from falling into repetition and keeping the audience guessing.
That the film looks phenomenal is no surprise. Shot on three giant sound-stages at Three Mills Studios in the east of London (proving that the UK can rival any country in the world for top-of-the-range facilities), everything about the film, fittingly for a Tim Burton production, screams quality and attention to detail. The character design, the backgrounds, the props and everything else that make up each shot are obviously the result of a hell of a lot of thought and hard work. And it shows on screen. The film sounds great too. Though ridiculously loud towards the end, the effects and the voice work are all first rate. Charlie Tahan as Victor, Winona Ryder as Elsa van Helsing, Victor’s gothic class-mate and next-door neighbour (owner of Persephone, Sparky’s poodle love-interest), Martin Landau reprising his role (in voice form) as the Lugosi-esque science teacher and especially Atticus Shaffer as Edgar, Victor’s hunched class-mate and “Igor” style counterpart (who is responsible for setting the horror-wheels in motion later in the film) are all uniformly fantastic. As is to be expected, being a Burton production, Frankenweenie just oozes class and polish.
Where it lets itself down is in its tone, and Burton’s choice of story, as mentioned above. Although the film does have a fantastic Harryhausen and Corman inspired ending, which is rollicking fun and expertly made, showing both Burton’s love for, and knowledge of the classics of the golden age of Hollywood science fiction, the hour or so before this is run-of-the-mill Frankenstein, with the novelty of the setting and the animation and the 3D wearing off fairly rapidly. Despite the quality of the animation, I still got the impression that the 3D was tacked on, to throw up the odd shock here and there, rather to add depth and space to the film. In fact, the most impressive use of 3D in the whole film was the mind-blowing Disney logo right at the beginning. Tonally, the film veers between slapstick comedy, touching emotional (mid-life crisis) depictions of the haunting spectres of youth and rather gory horror film. That the film is rated PG was a bit of a shock to me. Perhaps this is down to new fatherhood but there were a few scenes in Frankenweenie that I didn’t think were particularly suitable for younger viewers, with quite a bit of ickiness involved in Sparky’s transformation and quite a few intense scares at the end. Also, what gives with cat-poo gags?
Despite these few problems, Frankenweenie is still a remarkable work, and one that Tim Burton fans will adore, particularly after the relatively weak Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. In many ways he has literally returned to his roots and has made the film all of his fans seem to have been waiting for since The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Though not his best film (he has a lot to live up to in Beetlejuice, Batman Returns and Ed Wood), this is still classic Tim Burton and already thousands are no doubt preparing their black and white costumes for next Wednesday.
Frankenweenie was chosen as the opening night gala of the 56th BFI London International Film Festival, and goes on general release on the 17th October.
Director: Tim Burton
Stars: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer
Running Time: 87min