Back in 1984, Tim Burton was a wunderkind animator at Disney whose success with his black and white stop-motion short Vincent got him the chance to make something a bit bigger: a 30-minute live action horror/comedy called Frankenweenie. Burton allegedly had hoped to make it stop-motion as well, but Disney's budget didn't allow for it. (The film still cost a reported $1 million to make - no small potatoes in 1984, especially for a 30-minute short.) Burton was fired after studio executives complained about Frankenweenie's dark content. But it did open the doors for Burton's live action career.
28 years later, we are presented with a textbook case of irony: years after becoming one of Hollywood's biggest live action directors, Tim Burton finally gets to make his stop-motion Frankenweenie. And Disney, his old employer, foots the bill.
Frankenweenie hasn't fared well at the box office, which is a pity. The director's ever-dwindling fans should find it quintessential Burton, a nice pastiche of his best work: the black and white look from Ed Wood, the stop-motion from Nightmare Before Christmas, the dark comedy of Beetlejuice, and the misunderstood young man in a grim suburbia of Edward Scissorhands.
Taking place in a nebulous era - though all signs point to the 1960s of Burton's childhood - Frankenweenie documents the efforts of a young Victor Frankenstein, whose beloved dog Sparky dies in an accident, and who is inspired by his science teacher's lessons on electricity to raise the dog from the dead. Borrowing only the first and last act from his 1984 short, Burton and screenwriter John August flesh out the characters, but keep the story lean and tight. (They do make room for an intriguing subplot that takes aim at the Christian right's anti-science movement, and good on them for that.)
As expected, there are lots of homages to the 1930s Frankenstein films, but there are plenty of other monster movie references to enjoy as well. Over-protective parents might find it too frightening for their youngins, but the kids at my screening all got it.
With vocal contributions from a quartet of Burton regulars - Catherine O'Hara, Winona Ryder, and Martins Landau and Short - Frankenweenie is fine entertainment, nicely shot, richly scored (by Danny Elfman, naturally), and very well-designed. Usually the script is by far the weakest part of a Tim Burton film, but for once the story is solid. Good stuff, even better than ParaNorman, though the two would make a great double feature.