Film review – Frankenweenie (2012)

Frankenweenie: Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and Sparky
Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and Sparky

A crucial line in Frankenweenie about science working best when the experiments come from the heart as well as the head could very well be Tim Burton’s own admission that over the last decade or so many of his films were missing the sincerity and passion of his earlier work. Burton is one of the most stylistically distinctive contemporary filmmakers and while many of his films in the 2000s and beyond contain all the trappings of a Tim Burton film, the heart that was felt so strongly in his 1990s film was more often than not somewhat lacking. One of the many reasons that Frankenweenie is so glorious is that Burton has clearly poured his soul into what is his most personal film since his 1990 masterpiece Edward Scissorhands. Frankenweenie is not only one of Burton’s most pleasing films visually, but it is also a direct return to all his favourite thematic preoccupations. It is a tribute to the type of cinema and cinematic techniques that originally inspired Burton, while growing up as something of an outsider in suburban California during the 1960s and 1970s, finding solace in monster movies and animation.

Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is possibly the most overtly Tim Burton alter ego character to date. Like Burton when he was an adolescent, Victor is an introvert who prefers to keep to himself and make stop motion animation films rather than play baseball like his father wants him to. The production design for Frankenweenie combines the manicured lawns and landscaped gardens of the conservative America suburbs were Burton grew up, with an assortment of gothic flourishes capturing the horror film world that Burton submerged himself into. With its central storyline about Victor bringing his beloved dog Sparky back from the dead, the biggest visual influences on Frankenweenie are James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). However, Frankenweenie is overflowing with references to other classic horror and science-fiction films, and part of the fun of watching the film is spotting those references, some of which are very specific while others are more general.

The most striking thing about Frankenweenie is its black-and-white stop motion animation, which gives the film a beautiful textured feel and is Burton’s best use of the animation technique (as director or producer) to date. It’s clearly a labour of love for Burton, which has paid off. The characters elicit genuine empathy and the bond between Victor and Sparky is touching. The short live action film of the same name that Burton made in 1984 is similarly impressive and affecting, but in this new version Burton has done much more so that this 2012 Frankenweenie seems less a remake and more an expansion. Very few details from the original film have been changed with Burton simply recreating his original scenes and designs with stop motion animation. Around these core scenes Burton has introduced several new elements, which work almost seamlessly with the remade 1984 content. Ideas, jokes, characters and relationships are all fleshed out and the results are wonderful.

One of the most interesting new additions is what is possibly Burton’s most overt political statement yet, in the form of a subplot involving Victor’s irrational neighbours. As the latest in a long line of Burton’s misunderstood monsters, the reanimated Sparky starts to create alarm in the community resulting in a fear and panic fuelled pack mentality. It is science the residents decide to blame for their phobias, specifically the teachings of Victor’s science teacher Mr Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), who despite looking fearsome is clearly a sympathetic character, as he resembles Burton’s idol Vincent Price. While the anti-science mentality is initially ridiculed for laughs it becomes more poignant when Rzykruski warns Victor about the strange distrust and fear Americans can have for science. Burton doesn’t labour the point, but in a handful of satirical scenes Frankenweenie very effectively comments on the ongoing devaluing of science, as expressed through creationism and climate change denialism.

With its anti-intellectualism critique, classic horror film homages and beautiful production design, Frankenweenie is a great film for adventurous young audiences. Similarly to the equally impressive ParaNorman (Chris Butler and Sam Fell, 2012) it combines humour, enjoyable scares, moments of wicked humour and genuine pathos. Not only does Victor feel like the character that Burton has most affinity with, even more so than Edward from Edward Scissorhands, but through Victor Burton seems to reconcile several lingering preoccupations. Burton’s dark humour is still present in Frankenweenie, but a lot of the repressed despair and anger felt in some of his other films has dissipated. It is especially notable that the adult characters, who either misunderstand Victor or act foolishly through ignorance and fear, are portrayed as having the ability to realise and acknowledge they were wrong and be redeemed.

Frankenweenie is about a dog that is brought back to life, but it is also about the human spirit and its ability to do incredible things when fuelled by the power of imagination, curiosity and not being afraid to sometimes make mistakes. These are key attributes for creative and scientific minds, both of which are celebrated in Frankenweenie.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012