A feature-length, 3D puppet-animation expanded remake of Tim Burton’s 1984 live-actin short, this is the film of his I’ve most enjoyed in years. It’s in James Whale-look black and white (all muslin skies and stark shadows), reunites Burton with old collaborators (Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau) while Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter take a rest, and fits in with his most personal semi-autobiographical projects (there are Edward Scissorhands elements in the bland suburbia shadowed by a gothic structure – but they may have been carried over into Edward Scissorhands from the first Frankenweenie) as it deals with suburban kid alienation while expressing an enormous, liberating affection for classic monster movies.
The plot of the old short is reprised – young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) has no friends his own age, which is odd since his whole class consists of similarly monster-styled misfits like goth princess Elsa Van Helsing (Ryder) and snaggletoothed hunchback Edgar E. Gore (Atticus Shaffer), but loves his faithful dog Sparky, who stars in his homemade giant monster movie, fighting off a model Rodan in a cardboard city. In a bit of special pleading so blatant it’s amusing, Sparky is killed as a direct result of Victor’s Dad (Martin Short) persuading the kid to play baseball as well as toil on his beloved science project … and Victor resolves to bring his pet back to life through lightning-strikes.
The simple plot isn’t so much elaborated as embroidered. There’s an anti-suburban theme in the tyranny of the dog-hating Mayor Burgermeister (Short), who is hung up on the community of New Holland’s Dutch Day celebration, which commemorates the windmill on the hill (to evoke Frankenstein) and perhaps the tilted camera angles (to evoke Whale) and serves as the Burtonesque voice of bullying normality. And, after a few lab accidents, the township turns on the Vincent Price-look science teacher (Landau) in an all-too-credible display of small-minded anti-rationalist bigotry that doesn’t need to belabour recent fusses over creationism to be pointed.
An elaborate climax comes when the other kids in school use Victor’s techniques on their own dead pets – but without the extra ingredient (love) that makes Sparky a heroic success – and unleash a mummy hamster, a Gamera/Godzilla-like giant turtle, some Gremlins-esque sea monkeys, a werewolf rat (to homage Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man) and a nasty vampire cat on the town. It’s full of inventive character design, over-the-heads-of-kids-these-days references (when Burton and I were eleven, Universal monster movies were a TV staple – not so any longer), surprisingly heartfelt character stuff (credit screenwriter John August for adding complications), laugh-out-loud gags and enough peril to ramp up the excitement. Christopher Lee, omnipresent in recent Burton, pops up in a pixelled clip from Dracula seen on TV (flat). And, yes, there’s a Danny Elfman score that sounds a lot like other Danny Elfman scores.
First published in Empire.