Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Martin Short, Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder
Watch Frankenweenie online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
We’ve often wondered what Tim Burton was like as a child. We’re fairly sure he didn’t have scissors for hands, no head, or a secret alter-ego called Batman. Frankenweenie offers our first hint of his youth since the film originally appeared as a short in 1984. And it’s sumptuous, moving stuff.
Victor (Tahan) is a callow child, a sunken-eyed recluse. He spends his days filming Godzilla knock-offs with his toys. He doesn’t have many friends. He does have a dog, Sparky, but even he makes a swift departure by way of a car, leaving Victor’s little stop-motion heart broken.
Enter Mr. Rszykruski (Landau), a teacher with more than a passing resemblance to Vincent Price. Booming at the kids in his black-and-white classroom, his lesson on lightning sparks a new science project: bringing Sparky back to life. Some quick rewiring of the attic later and boy is reunited with pet. That, inevitably, is when things go wrong.
And how. Using Frankenstein as a springboard to go monster mad, Burton’s dark animation sings of the director’s love for creature features. There’s a bit of The Mummy in there. Dracula. A transformation scene worthy of American Werewolf in London. And each undead animal is impeccably designed – just like everything else.
From the carefully crafted human puppets to the extraordinary sets, the village of New Holland has a tactile attention to detail that Burton has mastered over the years. The local mayor (Martin Short)’s stuffed tummy rumbles every few seconds. One girl in his class (O’Hara – actually called “Weird Girl”) has a permanent expression of hilarious, wide-eyed terror. Even Sparky’s reanimated corpse is riddled with tiny stitches, which hint at unnerving unseen acts in Victor’s attic.
It would be nice if there were more thematic similarities to Frankenstein – the old 90s TV series Wishbone, about a dog who read books, would’ve come up with a neat parallel – but John August’s script makes up for it with a strong understanding of childhood loss. There’s also a pleasant thumbs-up to science: one brilliant moment sees Rzykruski tell all the anxious parents that they are merely stupid and ignorant, while praising young people’s imaginative minds.
For all its gothic-tinged fantasy, Frankenweenie (once banned by Disney for being too sinister) is a strangely sweet family tale. With a Danny Elfman score that nods to Edward Scissorhands, it finds that perfect balance between innocence and warped that has defined Burton’s best work.
Martin Landau brings the belly laughs and the villagers bring the burning pitchforks, but at its heart this is a tale of one boy’s attachment to his best friend. And when he finally learns to let him go, this becomes an adorable piece that shows Burton is still in touch with his younger side. Running around a room making Godzilla knock-offs with little toys? He’s never really grown up at all. That may be a problem for same jaded fans, but for everyone else, it’s a lovely lightning bolt of brilliance.