Film Review: Frankenweenie

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.


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24 thoughts on “Film Review: Frankenweenie

  1. ckckred says:

    I’m not a particular fan of Tim Burton but I think I should go see this now. I think I’ll rent it on DVD. Nice review.

    • I would definitely give this a go if you can, it’s a lot fun and even for those who aren’t Tim Burton fans, like yourself, will hopefully find enough to like in it. The animation is enough to at least admire, even if you don’t like the story.

  2. Yeah, I’m one of those adults that feels like the movie “Dodged the issues it had the opportunity to confront” (nice way of putting it BTW). This movie could have actually SAID something, and imparted something, as opposed to just being entertainment. Dont get me wrong, I still liked it quite a bit. Mainly due to the charming animation and macabre subject matter. Burton’s signature tone really shines through.

    But it was so solid across the board, that if it had just TAKEN that opportunity to talk about the value of “letting go”, it could have been a great movie.

    Nicely put Chris, I’m in agreement with you here.

    • It really did miss a trick with that one. I think if it had just had the balls to take a chance it could have been really special. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but that kept it from really fulfilling its potential. I know this was an old story of Burton’s but I haven’t seen the original and don’t know how much input Disney had on it, but I’m not sure they would have been too happy had it gone the other way. It could have upset children a little too much and I’m not sure they’d risk that. Part of me was actually willing the dog not to wake up and I was a bit disappointed when it did.

  3. Mark Walker says:

    Great review Chris. I’ve went off burton at the moment but still like the sound of this one.

  4. sati says:

    Great review! I’ve been very disappointed with Burton’s recent films but I’m still a fan so I’m hoping this one will be good.

  5. I might rent this eventually. The trailers never really interested me. Great review.

  6. mistylayne says:

    Definitely want to see this – great review!

  7. CMrok93 says:

    Maybe too dark and scary for the little kiddies out there, but for everybody else, they’ll love it and fall in love with the joyous feel and spirit that just oozes through every shot of this great-looking film. Good review.

    • Thanks Dan. Small children may find it scary at times but I’d say it’s more child friendly than ParaNorman was and a bit of a scare every now and again is character building 🙂 and it really is a great looking film, the animation is mesmerising at times.

  8. ruth says:

    I had no idea Tim Burton had wanted to make this way back in his Disney days, nice backstory, Terry. Well I’m glad he got to make it. I have yet to see it but I’ll rent it for sure. Looks like a good one!

  9. “you may notice a certain famous castle made squarely out of humble pie” LOL
    Great review, man! 😀

  10. Really want to see this. I know that Tom who writes for FRC loved it. Great review matey

  11. cinenemablog says:

    Is it better than ParaNorman? So far, for this year, from all the animated movies I’ve seen, ParaNorman takes the cake easily. However, I still need to see Wreck-it Ralph and this one, Frankenweenie.

    • It’s a tough call between this and ParaNorman, I liked them both a lot. I thought ParaNorman was scarier but Frankenweenie had the more interesting story. If I could only choose one to watch again, I’d probably choose Frankenweenie, but only just.

  12. I’m not a big Tim Burton fan, but I might check this one out. It looks like it has a little more of the charm that his other stuff has been lacking of late, even if it’s just fun fluff. Great review, Chris.

    Interesting you mention his termination from Disney early on. It got me to thinking about just when that short was made, and I wonder how much of that was the company culture at the time. Right then, they were just wrapping up the very-turbulent production of The Black Cauldron, which the new studio heads underpromoted due to feeling that it was too scary for children and was likely to lose money (which became a self-fulfilling prophecy). Burton was one of the animators on that film. Doing something macabre right when the studio heads were saying they needed to dial it back some might have had a lot to do with it. He may have had a better reception ten years later, and — obviously — Disney today has no problem with it.

    • That’s a great bit of backstory and could well have quite a lot to do with Burton’s departure. His original Frankenweenie could well have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The new one is still pretty dark in places and I can’t imagine Disney would have gone for it if it weren’t animated. Thanks for the comment Morgan!

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