This blog entry contains spoilers.
Michael and I are big Tim Burton fans, although I didn’t like the remake of Planet of the Apes (Michael liked it more than I did, but he still thought it was just “watchable”) and I found Dark Shadows disappointing.
We had seen his original 1984 live action short of Frankenweenie, and thought it was clever and quite poignant. It was a shame that Disney fired him right after he completed it. The studio thought it was too scary and allowing him to make it had been a complete waste of money. I think that with the right promotional push, it might have done quite well…and kids are not only tougher than a lot of people think, but also love to be scared. The film had a short run attached to the re-release of Pinocchio, then ended up on video.
Anyway, remaking the short as an expanded, B&W stop-motion movie was a stroke of genius. It’s charming – the long-legged, stylized human figures are surreal, movements are both stilted and fluid, and facial features are exaggerated or are pure caricature. But it suits the tone of the film – it’s a horror story. The look is off-putting. It’s weird. But it’s also emotional. You see the joy in Victor’s face when he’s with Sparky. You see his tears when he loses him. It hits you hard – this loving boy has lost his best friend, the most wonderful and loyal dog ever, and it’s real.
The style greatly suits the story. Have you ever seen the original Universal Studios Frankenstein movies, directed by James Whale? Burton captures the atmosphere and eeriness of those early films, if not the original story – a scientist reanimates a dead body, creating a sad creature that just wants to understand, but tragedy and fear lead to an angry mob trapping the creature in a burning windmill.
In Frankenweenie, Victor Frankenstein is now a budding filmmaker, whose homemade monster epics all star his best friend, Sparky. (His parents are wonderful examples of great parenting – accepting and encouraging his creativity.) When he loses Sparky, his grief is all encompassing, but his brilliant and somewhat scary science teacher Mr. Rzykruski inspires him to look to science for a solution. (I actually kind of wished I had had a science teacher like Mr. Rzykruski .) Motivated, Victor constructs a lab and brings Sparky back with a lightning bolt. He’s overjoyed, but his joy is tempered by everything that happens afterwards – keeping it a secret, dealing with other kids from his school who have their own reasons for wanting his secret to re-animating dead pets. (There’s a Science Fair involved.)
What’s so wonderful about this homage to the original movies (and to Mary Shelley’s original novel) is how elements from those movies make their way into this one. You still have the bolts in the neck, the Bride and her lightning bolt hair, Igor, Boris Karloff, a rival mad scientist, the eerie gypsy fortune teller, the torch-bearing mob, the windmill…and then Burton throws in a werewolf, a mummy, a vampire bat, and Gamera, for good measure. (Michael and I almost bust a gut when Gamera showed up.)
This film is an affectionate love letter to the monster movies of old, and it’s classic Tim Burton at his best. It’s also a great release for Halloween. I absolutely loved it.