I wrote last week that there are some films that I just can't wait to see on their release and the above stop-motion animation from quirky director Tim Burton was one of them. However, somehow I didn't get around to seeing it in the cinema, although I knew in my heart of hearts that it was a movie that I would love. I finally caught up with it a few days ago and found it a joyful viewing experience, but I can understand why it was not the runaway success that it deserved to be.
By way of background, Burton started off his career as an animator at Disney, and during this period he turned out two short films. The first was a brief and macabre stop-motion animation called "Vincent", narrated by Burton's hero and mentor Vincent Price and the second in 1984 was a 25-minute oddity called "Frankenweenie". Unlike the above movie, it was actually a live-action feature, starring Shelley Duval, Daniel Stern, Joseph Maher, and even a 14-year old Sofia Coppola (in a blonde wig). The story is of young Victor Frankenstein, played by Barret Oliver, whose best pal Sparky is killed while chasing a ball. The boy brings his beloved dog back to life by experimenting with lightning a la his namesake's 1932 film, much to the horror of his neighbours. They pursue the animal to a windmill on a miniature golf course which is set on fire, trapping the boy and the re-animated dog, but good old Sparky drags the lad to safety at the expense of his second life -- to their chagrin. Understandably Burton and Disney soon parted company, as his stories and outlook were a little too 'dark' for their candy-coated world of the time.
So it is a satisfying twist of fate that Disney has backed Burton's remake of a story that obviously he has treasured over the years. Choosing to film in black and white as an homage to the horror classics of the 1930s and not using the bright colours and 3-D effects that have taken over recent animations, it is easy to understand why this film lacks an immediate appeal for today's children and why it was not a sure-fire hit. It is however a real treat for the adults who might have accompanied them and indeed for any of Burton's fans. To my mind, it is not only a labour of love (stop-motion being one of the most time-consuming modes of picture-making), but also a work of real genius. Burton has opened the story out, although much is a recreation of the original short -- especially the reanimation scenes in young Victor's attic lab and the ending where the formerly vindictive neighbours circle the dead doggie with their cars and try to revive him with their battery power.
To stretch the story from 25 to a 80-odd minutes, Burton has young Victor's school class competing against each other in a science fair, inspired by their spooky teacher Mr. Rzykruski, a puppet created as the spitting image of the late Vincent Price. When a classmate, one Edgar E. Gore, spies the resurrected Sparky, he blackmails Victor into showing him how to bring a dead goldfish back to life, although the experiment doesn't quite work. He in turn spills the beans to the class' precocious oriental know-it-all and his mates. Before you know it, they are all trying to work Victor's magic and we soon have a were-rat, a colossal hamster, packaged sea-monkeys that morph into gremlin-like humanoids, a fat-cat Mr. Whiskers that fuses with a dead bat that he has dragged in (a cat-bat?), and the class genius' dead turtle Shelley turning into a giant Gamera-like monster. Victor must not only help to save the day, but must also protect his dear Sparky from the wrath of his neighbour, the town's mayor Mr. Burgomeister!!!
Burton cheerfully incorporates so many familiar images from the old movies, even including Sparky's love interest, the next door giant black poodle, developing an Elsa Lanchester white streak in her carefully coifed coat. He has also selected an excellent voice cast with Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short taking on multiple roles, his Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau) voicing the teacher, and reuniting with Winona Ryder from "Edward Scissorhands" as the voice of the mayor's niece, Elsa Van Helsing. For a change, however, no Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter join the fun. I had a whale of a time with the film and I think Burton also enjoyed the opportunity of introducing his early brain-child to a wider audience.
The only thing I've never understood is the title -- I get the 'franken', but why the 'weenie' for the patchwork Sparky? Never mind, it's a wonderful movie in my book.