Despite the long–lasting residual effects of Tim Burton’s well–deserved early reputation as a brilliantly eccentric filmmaker, it is hard to overlook the fact that the guy has spent the last two decades mostly de-fanging classic pop-culture landmarks such as Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Planet of the Apes, Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. In fact, a strong argument could be made for the fact that it has almost been a long 18 years since the director’s last true masterpiece, the fantastic 1994 bio-pic of legendary bad–film director Ed Wood.
You also have to go back to 2005 with The Corpse Bride in order to find one of his films which was actually based on one of this extremely unique creator’s own ideas. Before that you have to look to the slightly-overrated-but-beloved 1993 cult film The Nightmare Before Christmas. Those two films, interestingly, were both done in stop-motion animation – old school frame-by-frame puppeteering to create a very distinct nostalgic visual vibe. (For the record, his last live-action original story idea film was Edward Scissorhands in 1990.)
Frankenweenie returns Burton to this stop-motion style, as well as returning to an original Tim Burton concept, though granted a 28-year-old one. The film is based on Burton’s first short film, also called “Frankenweenie,” which he made in 1984. Interestingly, Burton’s loving pastiche of Frankenstein shared the same basic concept – about someone who perhaps unwisely decides to try to bring a beloved pet back to life after a tragic accident and the unexpected complications which arise due to his actions – as author Stephen King’s much darker novel Pet Sematary, which was released the year before.
The live-action short was a bit under a half-hour long and had a surprisingly strong cast including then-stars Shelley Duvall and Daniel Stern. The film never received any extended release (as most short films don’t), but his obvious talent behind the camera on “Frankenweenie” won him his first feature film opportunity for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, and the rest is history. “Frankenweenie” became something of a legendary lost early work of the auteur when he gained fame for the likes Pee Wee, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and the first Michael Keaton Batman.
In fairness, Frankenweenie is one of Burton’s better films in years, however that speaks as much about his recent body of work as it does about this movie’s qualities.
I’m not sure why after all these years Burton felt the need to return to pad this slight story to 90 minutes, nor am I sure why he decided to convert it from live actors to animated characters. Animated films tend to be for kids, but many of this film’s loving tributes to classic horror will fly right over children’s heads, including the teacher who is obviously designed after Vincent Price, the child character based on Peter Lorre, the Christopher Lee movie clip and the French poodle with a Bride of Frankenstein gray streak in her coat. Hell, arguably the whole lovingly assembled Frankenstein rejuvenation scene may be foreign to the younger audiences that might find themselves watching. Then again, you could say the same about the similarly themed Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, and both of those, while never huge hits, did gain strong cult followings as animation aimed towards adults.
The earliest scenes of Frankenweenie are extremely faithful to the original short – down to many of the same shots and angles – and they are by far the film’s strongest parts. Then, in order to spread it out to feature length, screenwriter John August loses a bit of control of the story, allowing it to spin into much larger, but less intriguing conflicts. By the time the storyline re-synchs with the original at the very end, Frankenweenie has become very busy indeed, changing a small story about man’s inability to accept things that are different into a massive monster showdown which nearly destroys a small town.
Much of this is done with a certain amount of cleverness and all of it is done with craft and skill, but it still feels a little overcooked.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2013 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 7, 2013.