I have never cared too much for Tim Burton’s stop motion films. I admit, his style is inimitable, and the unique character models have created many a merchandise opportunity. But as for the films themselves, I personally feel they are given a little too much credit. The Nightmare Before Christmas, whilst clever with its relevance to both Halloween and Christmas, didn’t leave any lasting impression on me. Corpse Bride, I found completely forgettable. So you’ll understand that I had no real interest in watching his latest offering, Frankenweenie. But to my surprise, Burton has done the unthinkable, and won me over.
Based on a short story from 1984 (the year, not an extract from George Orwell’s masterpiece) of the same name, Frankenweenie is the story of young science prodigy Victor Frankenstein and his pet dog Sparky. Being what can only be described as a ‘loner’, Sparky is the only real companionship that Victor has. One fateful day, his life changes when Sparky is tragically killed after running into the road. A few days later, in Biology class at school, he gets an idea: what if he could bring his beloved pet back to life through the power of lightning? He wastes no time in carrying out the experiment, and to his amazement, it is a success. Despite all his efforts, however, Sparky quickly wreaks havoc on the small town just by simply showing his face – they all still believe he’s dead, and it’s up to Victor to convince the townspeople that Sparky is still the same lovable mutt they knew and loved.
The very first thing you’ll notice about the film is that it’s black and white. In this day and age, for a movie aimed at a younger audience (who are more prone to a dazzling array of colours to keep their attention) to be essentially drained of ‘life’, per se, is a huge risk in my opinion. But then, Tim Burton has never really been known for conventional filmmaking, and his directorial decision to present the film in monochrome is a resounding success. It’s not just the colour scheme that makes this look old fashioned: everything from the character design to their names give this a vintage horror aura. For example, the main protagonist’s surname is Frankenstien, and his friends have names like Edgar E. Gore, and his classmate Toshiaki bears a striking resemblance to Frankenstein’s monster. The star of the show though is undoubtedly Victor’s dog Sparky. Without saying a word (barking doesn’t count), this lovable mutt will instantly steal the hearts of young and old alike. Even though you know his death scene is just a precursor for the main story of Victor bringing him back to life, that particular scene is a guaranteed tear-jerker: and it’s not the only one. I’m not ashamed to admit that by the time the credits rolled, so did a few tears from my eyes.
As great as it is, it suffers from not specifically having a target audience. It’s too dark (materially) for a younger audience, but the marketing hasn’t appealed to older viewers either. One particular scene involving Weird Girl’s cat is rather disturbing and would most likely frighten a child. And although I mentioned that there’s a variety of loving homages to old school horrors from years gone by, the finale attempts to cram in as many as possible, which ultimately makes them seem forced in there for the sake of it.
Nevertheless, this is pure Tim Burton: all of his trademark styles are apparent, and it’s good to see him working on one of his original ideas again. I won’t go as far to say as I’m a ‘fan’ of his now, but Frankenweenie has resurrected my interest in his material.