DM Haight

Over the last few months, the cinemas of the world have been bombarded with gothic horror films for kids. The first to hit audiences was the powerhouse Paranorman. The second was the Adam Sandler helmed Hotel Transyvania. These two films were made in similar style, had identical audiences, and made a nice retirement fund for a few Hollywood producers. One was scary, the other funny. The last film of this bombardment is Frankenweenie, directed by Tim Burton, who is a money-maker in name alone. The film is a remake of an earlier Burton film of the same name from 1984, and follows the story of a young Victor Frankenstein (not the same as the Shelly novel), who watches as the best friend he ever had, his dog Sparky, is hit by a car. In his sadness, he seeks to find a way to cope with his loss. With the introduction of a new science professor in Victor’s life, he learns about the powers of electricity, and like the character he is named after, he quests to master death and bring his dog back from the grave.

What is different about Frankenweenie is from all the rest this year? Well, for starters, it’s Tim Burton. The gothic style he has come to represent, the German Expressionistic mode in which he works is almost synonymous with his name at this point in his career. His last few films, Dark Shadows being the most recent, have come to show that Burton might be sacrificing narrative and coherency for style and familiarity. With his continued work with actors such as Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, Burton has become the butt-end of jokes as of late. What Frankenweenie represents is the skill Burton possesses. The film is shot in stop motion animation, which means it’s incredibly time consuming and difficult to illicit the right emotion from essentially lifeless characters. The ability to create both an engrossing and touching story, as well as having the talent to bring that story to life with the use of clay creatures is a feat quite difficult to dominate. The direction of this film shows that Burton can indeed be a force for good in this world, and that his style doesn’t have to be exclusively set in the narrow parameters the public has come to view him in. With Frankenweenie he returns to his roots, quite literally, to bring us a showcase of his talent.

The differences of the full-length theatrical version of Frankenweenie and its predecessor are obvious, but at the same time they are essentially the same film. The version from 1984 runs about 30 minutes, resulting in a fantastic short film. Upon its completion Disney saw fit to release Burton from their payroll, citing his work on his pet project as the underlying reason. The new version, however, has more scares and more laughs than the older version could have hoped for. Rarely does a director get to return to a project and point out a critical success when a he was once ridiculed for essentially the same project. What is more interesting is that Burton gets to tackle the use of stop-motion again, something he has not done since 2005’s Corpse Bride. And the animation is flawless once again. Burton continues to animate the dead on a consistent basis with his animated features, and his prowess never falters in these ventures. He manages to bring a story, with some of the most macabre themes, to a genre where those themes are often shunned. The idea of bestowing upon children a narrative of bringing back the dead, an idea that continues to scare audiences in the form of the zombie craze, is one that isn’t unheard of, and was done quite well only two months prior to the release of Frankenweenie in Paranorman. The difference between the two, however, lays in the method of delivery. While Norman had to find his inner strength, Victor already has that strength, that conviction. Victor sought, through scientific means, the truth about death, and the realities it bares. The film teaches children about loss and about how difficult it can be losing a friend like Sparky. It also teaches kids the magic science can bring to the world, and the way it can be abused, which is an altogether difficult thing to master in a genre where science is often vilified for bringing on nothing but monsters and diseases that kill off kids and bring back the dead. Mr. Rzykrusk, played by Martin Landau, holds the role of the misunderstood scientist, and represents what science becomes in the eyes of Americans. He attempts to teach in a way that will encourage children to ask questions, while at the same time finds no reason to defend his methods to their parents. This unabashed approach frustrates the parents of the New Holland, but brings a smile to the faces of science leaning audiences in every theater.

And what may also bring a smile to the faces of those viewing the film are those subtle references to the films of old, the ones that used to scare audiences. Bela Legosi and Boris Karloff get their long due homage. Characters like Igor and the classical Frankenstein, and even Godzilla get their screen time. It’s one of the few films in the genre that look back fondly on the camp of older films. The gothic style and the fond recollections of the past make this the biggest success of the season for a horror geek. In Frankenweenie we watch as some of our favorite scenarios of our favorite classic horror films are played out in a way that is both parody and homage. The film is respectful and enjoyable the whole way through. The animation is beautiful, the style obviously Burton, and the history appreciated and handled delicately. This film deserves all the accolades it receives, and will hopefully fall into a similar category as Nightmare Before Christmas, so that generations of audiences will find themselves enjoying the frightening, yet loving work that Burton creates, for years and years to come.

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