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Frankenweenie Review

October 5, 2012 | Posted by Jeffrey Harris
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Frankenweenie Review  

Directed By: Ben Palmer
Written By: John August; Based on the short film by Tim Burton
Runtime: 87 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG

Victor Frankenstein – Charlie Tahan
Elsa Van Helsing – Winona Ryder
Susan Frankenstein/Weird Girl/Gym Teacher – Catherine O’Hara
Ben Frankenstein/Mr. Burgemeister/Nassor – Martin Short
Mr. Rzykruski – Martin Landau
Edgar “E” Gore – Atticus Shaffer
Bob – Robert Capron
Toshiaki – James Hiroyuki Liao

Frankenweenie originated as a live action short Tim Burton wrote and directed. A riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it put a pre-teen boy who comes up with an idea to revive his dead dog with electricity much like Frankenstein’s monster. Burton, screenwriter John August, and Disney Renaissance legend and producer, Don Hahn, have now reenvisioned the story as a stop-motion animated, 3D movie. It’s still in black and white as the original was.

The basic story is the same. Young Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) has a close bond with his dog Sparky. Victor has a fascination with science and he’s encouraged by his eccentric substitute science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Landau) to join the science fair. Victor’s father (Short) on the other hand wants him to try and play sports as well. Victor’s world is shattered though when Sparky gets run over by a car when trying to fetch and retrieve a homerun ball Victor scores. Not long after, Victor despondent over the loss of Sparky comes up with a plan to bring him back from the dead by using electricity to re-start his nervous system. Inexplicably, the experiment works, and Sparky is revived as his old, jovial and curious dog self save for the fact that many of his parts are sewn back together and he’s got electric bolts in his neck.

In a change from the original story, there are supporting characters in the form of Victor’s odd classmates: Edgar “E” Gore (Shaffer), Toshiaki (Liao), Bob (Capron), Nassor (Short again), and a character credited as Weird Girl (O’Hara who also voices Victor’s mother) and her beady-eyed cat Mr. Whiskers. Once Edgar gets wind of Sparky and Victor’s experiment, he wants to duplicate in order to win the science fair. Edgar’s a chatterbox and soon the other classmates find out as well and with no choice left they all try to revive their own dead animals in order to . . . win the science fair.

This was a great story for Burton to go back to as a stop motion animated movie. It’s a much more touching and personal story than The Corpse Bride. Anyone can relate to the bond Sparky and Victor share. The movie succeeds with great visuals and production design. The creatures and characters in the movie all look fantastic. The new supporting characters all have cool designs, impeccable voice talent, and some hilarious dialogue. My favorite of which is Toshiaki since he creates a monster that looks like Gamera. Once his monster starts wrecking things up, Toshiaki gets a camera and tries to film the kaiju-style destruction.

What’s great is that each character in their design evokes a specific cinematic or horror movie archetype or character. Edgar resembling Igor and Renfield type characters from Universal horror films. Landau seems to basically be playing Vincent Price with Mr. Rzykruski. Weird Girl is like every creepy ghost woman from every ghost movie ever made. Toshiaki is basically a Japanese otaku. Nassor is basically mini-Boris Karloff.

The movie turns out to be a fun genre mash-up of being both a touching boyhood drama but also a mash-up of classic horror movies, monster movies, and science fiction. This is something Burton does effectively well which he can be hit and miss with at times. As always, he’s a great visual storyteller, and he puts together creepy, dark, ominous, and macabre imagery here unlike any other.

The movie’s story is at times a little uneven since it’s adapting a 29 minute short and turning into a feature length production. The changes and additions to the story are a bit cumbersome and flabby. I think the premise of this story works a lot better as a short since there isn’t really time to dwell on why Victor’s experiment works and why Sparky isn’t some insane evil zombie. When the movie does explore this, it comes off as confusing and the explanation doesn’t really work.

I think the other issue is the antagonists the story creates and their reasoning is absolutely silly even for a story like this. Victor’s antagonists end up being his classmates who when they find out about Sparky believe that Victor has come up with the science fair prize winning experiment. And so they become determined to come up with a better experiment or create a better monster than Sparky which begets the creation of the other reanimated monsters in the movie. This just generally falls under its own weight because it doesn’t make any sense nor is it effectively explained why these kids care so much about winning a science fair prize which is being judged by a science-hating teacher they don’t even like. Maybe if the prize was something the kids all really wanted and they were driven mad to get it out of greed, you could understand that. But this is really an example where you can’t think too much about the story and just have to enjoy the classic imagery the movie creates.

I can’t say the 3D for the movie was especially mind-blowing. To the movie’s credit, I didn’t have the greatest of seats when I saw it at the El Capitan theater to get the ideal view of the 3D projection. But overall, it just came off as redundant besides a few visual eye-popping visuals here and there. I think making the movie in black and white was the right way to go and perfect for this movie’s story (especially considering the original short was also done in black and white).

The 411: The translation of Tim Burton's charming short film into a feature-length animated movie comes out pretty rough around the edges. The story is very flawed and rather ineffective at times. But the visual world Burton creates is once gain brilliant and the characters are all very funny and likable. Parents be forewarned, while this is a cute story about a boy and his dog, the imagery and situations might also at times be too scary and dark for small children. Plus the way some poor animals get hurt and mutilated here is a little nasty and icky. The movie is also leagues better than the similarly themed ParaNorman.
Final Score:  8.0   [ Very Good ]  legend

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Jeffrey Harris

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