Frankenweenie (2012) ☆☆☆(3/4) : He’s alive!

Tim Burton’s “Frankenweenie” is a dark, moody, and innocent animation inspired by old classic horror films such as “Frankenstein”(1931). True to its source of inspiration, it is a black-and-white stop motion animation decorated with quirky imagination and morbid but sweet humor, and its story has a small touching aspect at its center which will come close to some of you.

The animation is based on Burton’s short live action film with the same name which was made during his early career when he was working at Disney. After that short film was completed, Burton was fired by Disney at that time because it was thought that the finished work was too scary for young audiences. But now he works with Disney to expand his original idea into a full-length animation feature, and the result is as odd and imaginative as you can expect from Burton.

The story is a humorous parody/homage of the Frankenstein story. Again, our hero’s name is Victor Frankenstein(voiced by Charlie Tahan), but, this time, he is a smart little boy living with his worrisome parents Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein(voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short, respectively). They live in a town named New Holland, and it looks like a grim version of that colorful suburbia in “Edward Scissorhands”(1990). Its grotesque residents look as gloomy and pale as their town, and, when the town festival is held later in the story, they do not look like having a fun. The town song is sung so cheerlessly and joylessly that you may be surprised to see that nobody kills himself during the performance.

Victor is not daunted by such a depressing environment like that. He is lonely and has little interest in getting along with the other kids at his school, but he has a dear friend Sparky, a little dog friendly and loyal to him. However, unfortunately, Sparky is hit by a car on one day, and he is buried in a pet cemetery drenched with spooky gothic darkness as Victor is devastated by this loss.

But, not long after that, he gets a good idea during the science class at his school. His new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski(voiced by Martin Landau), who behaves as if he were a Vincent Price academy graduate, shows his students dead frog being re-animated by electricity, and Victor applies the lesson to his private experiment for getting his friend back from death. His own experiment site in the attic has many familiar gadgets ready to be operated with buzzing sparks, and there is also a big table to be lifted high above the roof for receiving the required amount of electricity from the lightning in the sky, which happens quite often in his unusual town.

As he hopes, Sparky successfully gets re-animated as a good old doggie eager to please his master as before, though his appearance is a little different than before to say the least(considering that he has been dead at least for two days, I wonder whether he is a lot smellier than before). While happy to get his dog back again, Victor tries to hide his experiment and its amazing result from his parents and others as much as he can, but soon almost everyone in the town comes to see that the experiment is spinning out of control.

For his story, Tim Burton created the wonderful background to be appreciated through the first-rate set designs and, above all, the painstaking production of stop-motion animation. Three large sound stages were built for this animation, and the crews went through meticulous process on these sound stages for making their animation frame by frame with these small but delicate puppets for more than a year. The result is less smooth than average digital animation, but, like other good stop-motion animation, it is capable of bringing out admiration and wonder from you – especially if you know how much time and effort it takes to make one minute of stop-motion animation.

And the animation is fun to watch as a horror comedy peppered with the references of many old horror films. After learning about Victor’s success, his schoolmates unwisely attempt to reproduce his first result with many other dead pets, and the circumstance becomes more frantic as a consequence. As a experienced graduate who has been trained as a researcher, I know that there are always variations during multiple trials, but I must say there are too many variations in this case; I was particularly amused by an outrageously funny homage to Japanese monster movies during the climax accompanied with a bunch of freaky results.

Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, and others provide good voice performances to their puppet characters. When I saw the character voiced by Winona Ryder, I could not help but think of her previous collaboration with Tim Buron in “Beetlejuice”(1988), where she appeared a moody girl as depressed and neurotic as her character in this animation(by the way, her name is Elsa van Helsing – and she has a cute poodle willing to be the Bride of Frankenstein).

Tim Burton previously produced “The Nightmare Before Christmas”(1993), which has solidified its status as a classic stop-motion animation since its release, and directed later “Corpse Bride”(2005), which was also a good one. I do not think “Frankenweenie” is as good as these two animations, but it is an enjoyable animation despite its rather thin plot thanks to its humor and energy. This is an animation which the adult audiences will probably enjoy more than their children, but the young audiences may also enjoy it as a spooky but sweet tale about a boy and his beloved living dead dog.

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