Despite all the noise in the marketing about this being the first feature length stop motion animated 3D film, the only new aspect is the 3D. It’s a close cousin to Tim Burton’s 2005 film ”Corpse Bride”, so as usual we’re left with the question of whether the 3D adds anything.
There aren’t many pop-out-of-the-screen gimmicks, and the moods and settings of the film (the bright suburbs, horror-tinged stormy nights) are very high contrast in stark black and white, so there’s little of the muddiness that afflicts other 3D films. And just like Alice In Wonderland, where Burton disliked the 3D camera rigs, it’s been shot in 2D and retrofitted in post-production.
Aside from the marketing tags, it’s very much a Tim Burton movie, filled with the grotesque/gothic motifs, accoutrements and hallmarks that have made his work among the most distinctive and recognisable since Betelgeuse.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a normal kid living a proto-50s suburban life with his loving parents. He’s a science fan and amateur moviemaker, and with his beloved dog Sparky leads a charmed existence.
Inspired by the brilliant and slightly menacing science teacher Mr Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor gets the chance to conduct the ultimate experiment with electricity and life when – to everyone’s horror, Sparky is hit and killed by a car. Retrieving the body from the pet cemetery that surrounds the windmill on the hill at the end of town (in a storm, of course), Victor takes Sparky back to his attic bedroom, which looks a lot like the lab of his mad scientist namesake.
A few lightning strikes later and Sparky is reborn, stitched together and complete with bolts in his neck. Victor has to keep his resurrection secret, but with various friends and townspeople breathing down Victor’s neck – from the hunchbacked, reptilian classmate Edgar Gore (E Gore – get it?) to the next door neighbour Mayor Burgemesiter (Martin Short, who also voices Victor’s Dad) – Sparky’s secret can’t stay hidden for long.
When Edgar, the stoic Takaoshi (James Hiroyuki Liao) and the hilarious Weird Girl (Catherine O’Hara – who also voices Mrs Frankenstein) – all decide to try to bring back their own deceased pets, it causes a rampage of Sea Monkeys, a giant bipedal turtle and a savage rat through the streets of New Holland that only Victor and his classmates can reverse.
In tone, ”Frankenweenie” is most like ”Edward Scissorhands” (coincidentally the last time Winona Ryder and Tim Burton have worked together 21 years ago), depicting a white picket fenced suburban landscape that enshrouds something straight out of a Universal monster movie of the 1930s. The creative team – literally moving the hair, faces, bodies and environments of puppets 24 times every second and taking a photograph – have done such a good job you soon forget you’re watching both black and white and puppets and Frankenweenie sweeps you along.
Based on a 1984 short that legend has it got Burton fired from Disney, it’s what Peter Jackson’s first ”King Kong” film (shot on his kitchen floor as a kid) was – an homage to everything Burton loved and knew, from life in suburbs with a pet to black and white horror movies. The windmill centrepiece of the town of New Holland is straight out of the climax of Frankenstein, Mr Rzykruski is a towering, Dracula-like figure. Even the giant turtle trashing the annual town fair is a nod to the Godzilla films.
John August, who wrote Burton’s Little Fish and who frequently delves into fantastical worlds (as he did with his own film ”The Nines”) has taken a dozen classic horror tropes, turned them on their heads and enmeshed them into a sweet and funny story about kids. Like the best Dreamworks Animation movies, the great sense of movement and the jokes will please young viewers (but as with all Burton’s movies, you wouldn’t take a kid younger than about 10), and the horror movie homages will please grown-ups.