Back in 1984, a young Disney employee named Timothy Walter Burton came up with Frankenweenie, a live-action short about a boy who tries to bring his dog back from the dead after being run over by a car. However, Disney deemed Frankenweenie to be too frightening for children and promptly sacked Burton for wasting company resources. Fast forward nearly 30 years and Burton has finally brought his project to the big screen and, interestingly, prior to the film, you may notice a certain famous castle made squarely out of humble pie.
The core story of Frankenweenie remains the same. Victor Frankenstein’s best friend is his dog Sparky, but when Sparky gets run over fetching a ball, Victor is devastated. However, when he learns in school that electricity can reanimate dead organisms, he decides to try it out on his late best friend. When Victor’s classmates get wind of what he’s doing, they too decide to bring their pets back from the dead, with varying degrees of success.
The film starts off with more of a fairytale feel about it, but soon twists in elements of horror, some of which are pretty dark, without feeling too scary to frighten children. The fact that it’s the corpse of a lovable family pet being reanimated definitely allows darker themes to be explored without it feeling inappropriate at any point. Who’d have thought we’d see gravedigging in a modern Disney film? Frankenweenie isn’t as scary as, say, ParaNorman, but it doesn’t need to be; it’s a fairytale that, aside from a couple of jumpy moments, leaves the horror for the proper horror films and instead creates a beautifully twisted universe inhabited by beautifully twisted characters. The conniving Edgar ‘E’ Gore is a perfect accompaniment to Victor’s more honorable personality, whilst their teacher, Mr Rzykruski (a clear nod to horror legend Vincent Price), is mysterious and intriguing, offering a social commentary on society’s attitudes towards science and the fear of questioning firmly held beliefs.
Whilst Burton’s original version of Frankenweenie was live-action, his 2012 iteration is a return to his beloved stop-motion, and it’s this that provides much of the film’s charm. The animation is absolutely impeccable throughout, and even when the action becomes much more hectic in the final third, it remains mesmerisingly faultless. There’s something beguiling about stop-motion, almost a purer form of storytelling that appeals to adults just as much as children, and that’s another of Frankenweenie’s strong points: that there is just as much for adults here as children. Just like ParaNorman, there are nods to classic horror films, some subtle, some blindingly obvious even for those without an encyclopaedic knowledge of the horror genre.
The story rattles along and never gets boring, picking up pace significantly in the second half. The film’s length is spot on; perfect for keeping children’s attention whilst still providing a deep enough narrative for ardent film-goers. However, the ending is perhaps Frankenweenie’s biggest sticking point. Without wanting to spoil anything, the ending is likely to divide many, particularly adults, who could accuse it of dodging important issues it had the opportunity to confront. Despite that, it doesn’t take too much of the gloss off a thoroughly enjoyable film that marks a real return to form for Tim Burton.
Burton has made some incredibly memorable films but he’s also hit a few bum notes recently, notably Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows. However, this is the Tim Burton that brought us Edward Scissorhands, the one under the hood of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and the one that still retains the storytelling prowess he had all those years ago when Disney decided he was doing nothing but wasting company resources.