Retro Review: FRANKENWEENIE (2012){0}

At first it sounds like typically unoriginal revisionism — or outright laziness: the news that Tim Burton and Disney would be expanding the director’s 1984 short, Frankenweenie, into a feature-length film. Mr. Burton’s 30-minute short is an absolute delight, so (as many movie geeks audibly wondered) why would you want to mess with a good thing? Surely there are other storybooks and fairy tales like Alice in Wonderland that Tim Burton could re-adapt and turn into a cash cow? Is there a particular need or demand to revisit Frankenweenie?

It’s safe to say that I approached the new version of Frankenweenie with equal parts curiosity and skepticism, but my early concerns quickly vanished. Although it’s been lengthened and expanded in various ways, the feature-length rendition retains the same dark playfulness and earnest charm of the short film, but it also goes a lot further in the areas of narrative, character, and large-scale spectacle. Potentially a risky project for Disney, Frankenweenie feels like they gave (owed?) a blank check to Tim Burton, who promptly used it to make a film he clearly cares about. As someone who detested Dark Shadows and Alice in Wonderland, it’s great to note that Frankenweenie is a comforting return to form for my favorite version of Tim Burton: the guy who gave us BeetlejuiceThe Nightmare Before Christmas, and Corpse Bride.

The new version of Frankenweenie tells a rather simple story, and one that should sound familiar to any fan of the horror classics: little, lonely Victor Frankenstein decides to resurrect his recently-dead dog through the use of electricity, and while the experiment seems successful at first, it doesn’t take long before the adorable zombie dog gets into some serious trouble. Eventually there are undead beasties and crazy creatures running all over town — a gloomy place called New Holland that’s already populated by some very amusing genre caricatures — and it’s up to Victor to get everything back to normal. There’s also a small but rather brilliant subplot involving Victor’s relationship with his new science teacher, who looks a lot like Vincent Price and is voiced, wonderfully, by Martin Landau.

The voice cast is great across the board, actually. Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder play multiple characters, young Charlie Tahan makes for ar charming hero, and the “bark” of the undead canine Sparky is provided by the legendary Frank Welker, as any animal’s movie voice should be. Even the voices of Victor’s schoolyard antagonists are funny, styled as they are to sound like memorable horror characters of yesteryear. The spazzy and misshapen Edgar “E.” Gore, for example, is an insane delight. If this “long version” of Frankenweenie has a few new additions that feel sort of grafted on, if you know the original film, those minor gripes are counter-balanced by several weird and witty batches of dialogue from screenwriter John August.

Packed with “horror geek” references both obvious and sly, and boasting one of Danny Elfman’s best scores in over a decade, Frankenweenie may be a bit more “kid-friendly” than the similarly-themed ParaNorman from a few months back (which you really should see), but that is not meant as a knock. Both quietly charming and adorably weird, Frankenweenie isn’t a Disney flick that packs a ton of life lessons into the package; it’s just a simple, strange, funny, and visually amazing piece of horror-flavored comedy that’ll make little kids laugh and let parents revisit the type of Tim Burton stuff that made them big fans in the first place.

And to whomever it was at Disney that allowed Burton to go “full black and white” on a feature-length animated film, well, thanks. That was a good decision.