Frankenweenie (2012)

Posted by Ian Mantgani on 16th October, 2012

Tim Burton’s big-budget stop-motion remake of his 1984 live-action short Frankenweenie is not quite a return to form, but it’s an approach back to form: the best film he has made in a decade. Telling the story of a young boy who sees his dog die in a car accident and decides to reanimate him, the film adapts the original’s tale of a suburban mob not being able to tolerate a living-dead dog into a sprawling comic-action adventure of all the neighbourhood kids digging up their pets and seeing them become weird, rampaging zombies.

The expertly handmade quality of Frankenweenie ’12 gives it a joy of filmmaking not seen in CGI disappointments like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice and Wonderland. The action moves with a frenetic zip, happily energetic if not quite exciting. There are balletic moments that genuinely affect – I liked the nefarious land-hopping sea-monkeys that seem like a reference to Gremlins, especially when one is bound in then unspooled from bandages, landing in a coffin, in turn a reference to The Mummy. Generally, though, the beats are rushed. I would have liked more time spent grieving on the dog before the science-fiction kicks in, but Frankenweenie is in a hurry to create idiomatic ideas of its characters and moments rather than get real emotion from them – ironic, when the horror-lore-pastiche puppets of The Nightmare Before Christmas seemed so much like real, fleshed-out characters.

As much as Burton seems ready to step away from the CGI cocoon in which he has holed himself, he’s still in his own little world. Not only remaking his own film, this picture, despite a main character called Victor Frankenstein, is less a tribute to classic monster movies than to Burton’s own work, with location references to Edward Scissorhands, a creature that references Batman, the magical music of genius Danny Elfman and vocal performances from familiar cast members like Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau and Martin Short. There are awkward signs that Burton doesn’t have any sense what time he’s in: Characters make references to Pluto no longer being listed as a planet and the possibility of computer simulations of science experiments, and yet they dress like they’re in the 50s and use Super 8 cameras instead of cameraphones. Not to mention the Japanese kid who talks rike-oo riss-u, and whose zombie pet, inevitably, becomes a Godzilla figure.

The cinematography revels in lovely black-and-white (although the digital projection at Odeon Leicester Square kept turning it red), and the native 3D shows distinctive planes of action, though not to any great effect except in the spectacular windmill climax, where every inch of depth is used to illustrate the violent entanglements of Victor versus the creatures. Overall Frankenweenie is fun, but its pleasures are so based on authorial redemption and its rhythm and world are so confused, I have no idea if kids will know what the hell to make of it.