Tim Burton’s gone back to his roots and resurrected a classic.
Frankenweenie is director Burton’s pet project in more ways than one. It started as a 28-minute live-action short for Disney way back in 1984. It helped put him on the map and set the stage for kookiness like Beetlejuice and his love letter to bad filmmaker extraordinaire Ed Wood.
The original short, starring Shelley Duvall, Daniel Stern, and Barret Oliver, played like Alfred Hitchcock Presents meets Leave It to Beaver. Now the story’s been expanded into feature length and the situations enlarged for the big screen, all wrapped in the stylistic flourish of Corpse Bride.
Screenwriter John August, who flopped with Burton’s lame take on Dark Shadows, has rebounded with the director and crafted a loving homage to those classic horror and monster movies of yore and their affection for the material is infectious.
Monsters from Beyond
The core of the story is the same, with young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan, I Am Legend) taking a cue from science class and bringing his recently-deceased dog back to life. That whole scenario, from the tragic accident right on through to the spooky weird science, has undergone some fanciful big screen extravagances, but fans of the original short will recognize some of the props, such as Christmastime lawn reindeer helping to juice Victor’s Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions.
Adding some more flesh to the story is the double whammy of quaint suburban New Holland’s Dutch Day and a school science fair. The eerie science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, who won an Oscar for his take on Bela Lugosi in Burton’s Ed Wood), laments the United States’ lack of new scientists. He chirps about how his car mechanic back home won a Nobel Prize, for Pete’s sake!
At least his dark and sinister demeanor, a suitable mix of Vincent Price meets… um… Martin Landau... doesn’t scare off the kids. Some of them are inspired enough to take pop bottle rockets to a whole new level while a couple of the kids, Edgar E. Gore and a weird girl simply identified as “Weird Girl,” could stand toe-to-toe with Mr. R. when it comes to the creep factor.
Bride of Frankenweenie
Frankenweenie is the kind of movie that manages to generate smiles long after the theatre falls out of sight of the rear view mirror. It’s a paean to the gods of black-and-white horror, with Victor’s experiment, Dutch Day, and the science fair all tying together for a masterpiece of climactic mayhem that pilfers from old school stars like Godzilla, Wolfman, and Mummy, with a dose of Gremlins for good measure.
Among the giddy little joys on tap is Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing (there’s nothing subtle going on with the character names). Elsa calls to mind Ryder’s breakout role as the majorly depressed Goth girl Lydia in Burton’s Beetlejuice.
There’s also an Egyptian student who seeks to resurrect his own deceased pet, Colossus, enshrined in a massive tomb in New Holland’s pet cemetery. Ahh... Colossus. He’s the setup for a joke reminiscent of that minor classic Bambi Meets Godzilla.
It’s all good-natured fun wrapped up in a beautiful black-and-white ribbon, but it’s worth noting, even with its PG rating, there’s enough monster mayhem to bring smaller members of the audience to tears. But that is part of the magic of movies, when even a vampire cat, one that’s merely a filmed puppet presented in monochrome, can scare the willies out of children.