“You went to watch Frankenweenie? Isn’t that for kids?”
I found this ironic coming from a person who happens to really like Despicable Me. I haven’t seen it, and I understand that it’s a pretty decent movie, but from what I know of it, it is even more of a children’s film than Frankenweenie is.
To summarise the story: Clever and introverted Victor Frankenstein lives in a small town called New Holland (which really reminded me of the town where Edward Scissorhands lived). When his beloved Sparky dies, Victor is inconsolable. Then one day during a science lesson in school, Victor is inspired to attempt to raise his dog from the dead – and he succeeds! But some of his classmates discover this fact, and each tries to replicate his experiment, with consequences both dire and hilarious.
I think of Frankenweenie as Tim Burton’s personal pet project. He came up with the story when he was an animator at Disney, and eventually managed to get it made into a short film in 1984 – but that didn’t work out so well and Disney sacked him. Now, years and years later, they give him leave to make it a full-length animated movie, which he does with his signature style and wit. And proves that you don’t need a a film to be in full colour for it to be interesting. Frankenweenie, I give thee three and a half stars: ★★★½
Frankenweenie‘s story is simple with a touch of sweetness and huge doses of “quirky”. It carries a busload of Tim Burton trademarks – stick-thin characters with huge heads, large dark-rimmed eyes, an awkward and shy main guy, a misunderstood girl, characters named Victor and Edward (I think these must be Burton’s favourite names), Danny Elfman music and ghoulish/horror elements that are conversely not really ghoulish or horrific in feeling at all. It has a happy ending but it still made me tear up a little. It’s odd how at one glance you’d think Burton’s stuff would be really bizarre and/or scary, but in the end it turns out to be more quirky than bizarre, and more charm than chills.
There isn’t anything really surprising about the narrative, but the real fun is in coming across the many references to classic horror films and literature. There are lots of them; mostly occuring in the final act. Now, I don’t like horror films and tend to stay away from them, but I’m aware of the icons and imagery associated with things like Dracula and Frankenstein so it kinda works out.
Like Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie is a stop-motion film, and considering that the characters were merely puppets that have to be moved in tiny increments for every single frame, I thought they were remarkably “alive.” The same was true for Corpse Bride, but Sparky the dog is more adorable than anything in Corpse Bride, and Victor’s oddball classmates are more amusing than Corpse Bride‘s cast – e.g. the wide-eyed “Weird Girl” who owns the prophetic cat gives off a more ghostly feeling than any of the monsters that appear in the film (hmm, actually, she reminds me of Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter), and the snivelling, giggly Edgar is suitably disgusting and selfish. Aren’t animators amazing?
I think making it a black-and-white stop-motion film was a very good idea. The lack of bright colours makes it feel like a throwback to old movies, which is all the more appropriate since the entire movie appears to be one big merry nod towards old-school horror films. Stop-motion animation is a little less sleek and slick than 3D or even 2D animation, and it gives off a completely different feel. Perhaps it is the ever-so-slight stiffness of movement you get with stop-motion puppetry that sets it apart and makes it seem less natural than the other two main modes of animation. That’s probably why the method works so very well for Tim Burton’s brand of morbid eccentricity.
Just as I was expectedly enchanted by Nightmare Before Christmas and amused by Corpse Bride, so too was I charmed by Frankenweenie. Definitely a movie that film fans should see, and especially those with a soft spot for classic horror films. Hey, if I – who generally dislikes horror movies – liked it, there’s a higher chance people who do like horror movies will like it more than I do.
To close, a list of the references I noticed/discovered via Google:
- Victor Frankenstein. Clear for all to see (though it was a while before it registered in my mind that his surname was Frankenstein).
- The resurrected Sparky has surgical stitch marks on his body and screws on each side of his neck, a la Frankenstein.
- Victor’s makeshift lab in the attic and his outfits call the words “mad scientist” to mind.
- Victor has an “assistant” – a shifty, slimy classmate called Edgar whose physique and speech are so very “Igor”-esque (and his full name is Edgar Gore. “E” Gore).
- Another classmate, a Japanese boy named Toshiaki tries to reanimate his dead pet tortoise, Shelley, but his experiment goes awry and the small tortoise morphs into Godzilla – with a shell. (This is apparently a nod to a Japanese film called Gamera. Doesn’t matter if you don’t know it though – the resemblance to Godzilla is funny enough.)
- The name Shelley is another obvious reference, this time pointing to Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
- Victor’s next door neighbour and sort-of crush is named Elsa Van Helsing – “Van Helsing” is the vampire hunter in the Dracula novel, and “Elsa” refers to Elsa Lanchester, the actress who played the titular character in Bride of Frankenstein.
- Elsa’s dog is called Persephone. In Greek mythology, Persephone is the daughter of Demeter, stolen away by Hades and made the queen of the underworld.
- Persephone later accidentally acquires two white streaks in her fur. Bride of Frankenstein-style. This one made me laugh a lot.
- A vampire cat and were-rat join the giant Shelley and mutated sea-monkeys (that probably resemble some B-movie swamp creatures, for all I know) in terrorising the town. There’s also a mummified hamster that one hardly knows is a hamster under all the bandages. Anna and I kept wondering if it was a large worm of some sort…
- Nassor, Victor’s Egyptian classmate and owner of the mummified hamster, looks very much like Frankenstein sans stitches and screws.