Movie Review: Frankenweenie
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” embodies the excitement, innocence, awkwardness and imagination of childhood.
Young Victor Frankenstein (a great performance from voice actor Charlie Tahan) spends most of his time alone with his thoughts and his best friend, Sparky the dog. He begrudgingly gives sports a go at the insistence of his well-intentioned but dense father, but he’d prefer to hole away up in the attic with his goofy-looking terrier.
When his lovable scamp meets an unfortunate and early demise, Victor reels with the pain of first-love lost, and as one does when desperation sets in, goes to extreme measures to set things right.
Victor makes a science project out of his late pooch, stitching him together, holding him fast with big metal bolts that he electrifies by harnessing lightning. And, suddenly, “it’s alive.”
The reanimated pup returns to his place alongside his best pal, but the relationship, and Victor’s god-playing must be kept secret. But when the kids at school get wind of the power of science, they, too, try and become mini Dr. Frankensteins, only to see their ambitions backfire in monstrous proportions.
The stop-motion animated film is an expansion on Burton’s 1984 short film of the same name, and he has space here to spread out a bit more and touch on themes of childhood alienation (not really such a dire thing, as it turns out) and the myth of idyllic suburban America (the neighborhood here looks very familiar to other Burton films like “Edward Scissorshands”).
The stick figures have an innocence and simplicity but still manage to connect on an emotional level, with expressive faces and large doe eyes. The kids who razz Victor at school are a hilarious band of misfit goofs, the funniest being Edgar, who’s constantly trying to foil Victor’s plans while simultaneously looking desperately for a friend, a perfect metaphor for the awkwardness of childhood.
In addition to the obvious nod to “”Frankenstein,” the movie also makes several nods to classic horror. Victor’s goofy and ghoulish science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), is an homage to a Vincent Prize character, and images like a haunted talisman (here a looming windmill) give the film an eeriness and grandeur. Winona Ryder plays the sweet, misunderstood girl next door named Van Helsing
Burton has a cast of familiar faces here, in addition to Ryder. Catherine O’Hara plays both Victor’s lovable but unaware mother and an intense gym teacher, and Landau is great as the campy teacher.
While the film has a sweet heart, it still manages to get in a few spooks. And what’s scarier than losing your dog? The dramatic climax is a great, destructive set piece that would be at home in a live-action film.
“Frankenweenie,” which had its world premiere at the recent Fantastic Fest, feels like a bedtime story from a man who really knows how to spin a yard, and it’s nice to see Burton back firing on all cylinders after a couple of recent misses. The film laces its heart with a touch of wise-beyond-its-years cynicism that make it compelling for audiences of all ages. Everybody knows what it’s like to be a kid, and Burton gives an empathetic voice to the shared experience.