When Victor Frankenstein sits his parents down to watch his lovingly crafted homemade movie, it’s as if he’s the alter-ego of director Tim Burton and we are the ones he’s sharing his very personal project with. Frankenweenie draws upon the special relationship Burton once shared with his pet pooch, but the boy in this story has the ability to raise his hound from the grave. It’s an education in death, science and Universal horror.
Hordes of classic characters have ambled from the crypt marked 1930 and disguised themselves as Victor’s classmates. There’s the hunchbacked assistant (known as Edward ‘E’ Gore), Frankenstein’s flat-headed monster, and (bizarrely) a clay clone of Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood, whose cat spells omens in his excrement. For all their visual charm, the little monsters are never promoted beyond wry references and clay fodder. Winona Ryder’s poodle-owning Elsa Van Helsing only exists for a Bride Of Frankenstein gag, and her uncle, the mayor of New Holland, is an underdeveloped authority figure that speaks with a musical accompaniment. It seems energies were poured into the design rather than the absent gags or skewed tale-telling pace, which languishes in the first half and darts to the finish.
Essentially, it’s an over-simplified adaptation of Frankenstein with a subplot about a science fair tacked on. The kids are hell-bent on winning first prize, especially ‘E’ Gore (a Transylvanian heavy-breather voiced enthusiastically by Atticus Shaffer), who threatens to expose Sparky’s new leash on life. These wacky experiments resurrect classic scenes from cinema: angry torch-wielding mobs storm the screen, and we’re reminded that no one is safe in a portaloo. There’s even a reprise for Christopher Lee in his world-famous Dracula role. Unfortunately, it’s not a fresh cameo, rather a clip from an old movie playing in the background, but it’s sweet to introduce a new generation to his black and white past.
Indeed, Burton washes away his usually vivid palette of colours and the film is executed in greys, blacks and whites in a rare tribute to retro horror. This technique makes you realise how considered each sequence is and lends itself to some wonderfully melodramatic moments, like the scene where Victor sobs himself to sleep as the rain outside throws moody tear-drop shadows across his face. This shock-haired, insomniac-eyed misfit is signature Burton, and so are the regimented lawns of American suburbia that the story is set among. Edward Scissorhands could have been assembled just up the road. There are the expert sounds of Danny Elfman’s compositions in the air and the bark of a loveable deceased dog that has become almost as permanent a fixture as Johnny Depp (though he surprisingly doesn’t
Frankenweenie is an extended version of Burton’s ’84 live action short, which earned him a dismissal from Disney the first time around. He sure showed Walt, and there are plenty of adults-don’t-know-best references in there. You can’t help but think it’s rather fitting when the grown-ups start over-reacting to things they don’t understand, like the Vincent Price-inspired science teacher’s methods, when Burton’s first attempt was greeted the same way. It’s a corpse of an idea preserved in formaldehyde and brought back to life with a few stitches and bolts tacked on. Questions are raised about whether it’s kinder to let a loved one go, but we’re pretty glad this idea wasn’t left to die.