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With Disney’s Frankenweenie, director Tim Burton delivers a story of a boy and his dog and the lightning storm that raised the dog from the dead. Much like the 1984 short that inspired the film, Frankenweenie is a sweet, simple tale about unconditional love and a welcome throwback to the early days of Burton’s career.
In the fictional town of New Holland lives Victor (voiced by Charlie Tahan), a pre-adolescent misfit who has two loves: science and his dog Sparky. Outside of a nascent crush on his next-door neighbor Elsa (Winona Ryder), Victor’s only friend is Sparky, something that worries his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara). When a tragic accident takes Sparky’s life, Victor decides to use his town’s nightly thunderstorm — and science! — to bring him back to life. Unfortunately word gets out and the rest of the kids in town decide to replicate Victor’s experiments, to disastrous results.
The real appeal of this stop-motion monster movie lies in its simplicity. Kid has dog. Kid loses dog. Kid brings dog back only to find he might lose dog again. Outside of a monster attack on the town’s “Dutch Day” ceremony, the action is all focused on Victor and Sparky, and that bond is what drives this tearjerker.
Easily the best Burton movie since Big Fish, Frankenweenie triumphantly returns the director to his animation roots. His knack for the grotesque is not reserved just for the monsters but also for the denizens of the town. The mayor is a horrible little man with flapping gums, Mr. Rzykruski is a withered Vincent Price caricature, and the kids are often physically based on the monsters they bring to life, like Nassor’s shambling mummy walk or E. Gore’s literal Igor appearance. The black and white looks fantastic, as does the 3D — between Frankenweenie and LAIKA’s ParaNorman it seems stop-motion is an art form perfectly crafted for three-dimensional viewing.
I do have to say, however, the past few years of technological pushes at LAIKA have now made me accustomed to detailed stop-motion facial expressions, and it’s a little jarring to go back to a movie where only the mouths and eyelids really move. Especially in light of how expressive the voice acting is, it’s a little disappointing that the faces are less animated than the voices. Still, Frankenweenie’s animation is still fun to watch, with some subtle and clever mimicry of the stop-motion monsters in B-movies.
Just as entertaining is the stellar voice cast. Martin Landau’s Mr. Rzykruski is a fun Vincent Price-esque madman, and the scene in which he “defends” his science class to the PTA is a hilarious bit, poking fun at the grandiose science speeches that so often pop up in the B-movie genre. O’Hara gets to stretch her talent voicing a loving mother, the town’s hilarious Weird Girl and an insane gym teacher, while Short exudes quintessential clueless film dad with every breath, spouting some of the movie’s best parental nonsense as he tries to convince Victor to join the baseball team.
But while the adult voice cast is spectacular, it’s the child actors who steal the show — especially Atticus Shaffer, whose E. Gore is simultaneously creepy, sinister and a lonely kid who just wants to be friends. Tahan’s Victor is as likeable as his dog, and his grumbles and sighs are all expressive as he tries to navigate a world of crazy adults and nuttier classmates. Non-child Ryder also does a surprisingly good job as Elsa, and James Liao and Short again channel the mad scientists and Boris Karloff knock-offs of the 1940s and ‘50s B-movie heyday as the kaiju-creating Toshiaki and menacing Nassor.
The best part of the film is the animation of Sparky, the incredibly expressive Frankenstein dog, however. It’s astonishing how perfectly Burton has captured the essence of what can only be described as Sparky’s “dogness”; the animation is so natural I’d almost accuse Burton of putting a real dog in a suit. Moreover, the silent Sparky sections of the film further the emotional narrative because as an audience member you grow to love Sparky. You want him to get together with the poodle next door just as much as you want him to reunite with Victor, and there’s genuine worry for the poor pup as he secretly navigates the town.
The few problems lie mainly with the script, by Corpse Bride and Big Fish writer John August. Chunky dialogue and uneven, lurching pacing mark the first act as the plot takes some inexplicable turns. It also never addresses the big questions it brings up, such as what’s up with the lightning? Why does the experiment work? What’s the point with all the drama around Mr. Rzykruski? Luckily the vast majority of Frankenweenie is spent with Sparky or in non-speaking homage to B-movies, and the film finds its footing once it gets to the big monster setpieces. The real point of the animated feature is to show off Burton’s awesome monster designs, and the second-best part of the film is when monsters finally start running amok.
Frankenweenie is the best Burton movie to surface in years, and we can only hope it marks a new chapter in Burton’s career, taking the director away from the convoluted, big-budget features of recent years and back to the terrifying-yet-sweet films that made him a household name in the first place.
Frankenweenie opens today nationwide.