Back from the dead – Frankenweenie review

Frankenweenie – Featuring the voices of Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau, and Catherine O’Hara. Directed by Tim Burton. Rated PG. By Simon Miraudo.

When I declared Dark Shadows Tim Burton‘s best film in a decade,” I didn’t expect to go back on my word a mere five months later. No, my affection for that nutso soap-opera has not been diminished. Rather, Burton had to go and deliver an exceptionally appealing family comedy, a stunningly realised stop-motion celebration of cinema, and an audacious criticism of America’s anti-intelligentsia plague in one. He did it all by returning to his roots and remaking, expanding, and animating the Disney short so strange it got him fired from the studio back in 1984. His new-and-improved Frankenweenie is Burton’s best film since Ed Wood, and thus, the best thing he’s done in nearly two decades.

Screenwriter John August has been charged with lengthening the original 30-minute tale, itself an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and he does a fine job of it. Young Victor (Charlie Tahan) may be lacking in friends, but he’s got the world’s best dog, Sparky, to keep him company instead. In the town of New Holland, where all the residents double as a rogues gallery of motion picture history’s most horrific monsters, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Sparky is the star of Victor’s home movies, though his acting career is cut-short by the wheels of a speeding car. After receiving inspiration from his intense science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor decides to bring his dog back to life. The pet cemetery is broken into, the corpse is dug up, and lightning is employed to resuscitate the late Sparky and wake him from his eternal slumber. He returns and is pretty much just as he once was, besides his ear and tail occasionally falling off.

Anyone with an even fleeting familiarity with Shelley’s original parable can expect Victor’s miracle to be repeated on another body – with disastrous results – and for the terrified townspeople to eventually chase Sparky with pitchforks and flaming torches towards a windmill. What was less expected, at least to this writer, was the way in which Burton and August reapply the tale to modern times – in spite of the black-and-white imagery that harkens to the Hammer horror of old – and comment on America’s fear of scientific exploration. Mr. Rzykruski is made to answer for rousing his class to attempt such audacious experiments, and he frankly informs the local adults that their pea-sized brains could not properly comprehend the importance of their fearless trials. They like what science gives them, but not the questions it raises. Without veering into spoiler territory, Frankenweenie concludes with the people of New Holland joining forces in open defiance of God, and if that’s not the most subversive moment in a children’s movie you see all year, you’ve got to let me know what children’s movies you’re watching and where I can find them.

For those less interested in the Prometheus-like inspirations of Frankenweenie, there is still plenty to enjoy. The voice cast is a reunion of Burton’s all-stars, including Landau, Catharine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder (Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are likely resting in their age-rejuvenation chambers). Tahan is an appealing every-weirdo, though he’s overshadowed by the insane vocal stylings of Atticus Shaffer as E. Gore, an Igor-esque antagonist with the hump (both literally and figuratively). The character designs are similarly ingenious. Whether kids enthusiastically embrace an entirely colourless, ideologically complex, often spooky Frankenstein pastiche remains to be seen. That, however, is a problem for kids, and I haven’t been one of those for some years. Frankenweenie is a demented delight.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Frankenweenie arrives in Australian cinemas October 25, 2012.

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