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56th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Frankenweenie’

By Matthew Rodgers Created: October 13, 2012 Last Updated: October 14, 2012
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Frankenweenie, a simple tale that unfolds beautifully. (Disney)

Frankenweenie, a simple tale that unfolds beautifully. (Disney)

Like the bolt of lightning that re-animates Victor Frankenweenie’s patchwork mutt Sparky, this stop-motion masterpiece seems to resuscitate Tim Buton’s rotting corpse of a career trajectory. After the soulless exercises that were Dark Shadows and Alice in WonderlandFrankenweenie is imbued with so much care and attention to character that you fall in love with a Burton universe for the first time since the nameless locales of Edward Scissorhands

Taking the reigns after producer duties on some of this animated sub-genre’s most successful stories – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996) – this is instantly recognisable as a classic Burton creation. 

The film is shot in Universal monster-movie era monochrome, one of many nods to the kind of films that shaped Burton’s gothic skewed world, a vision that, let’s be honest, had grown a tad tedious over the past decade, Frankenweenie is a simple tale that unfolds beautifully, with a big patchwork heart beneath it’s gruey stitches and odd-shaped inhabitants. 

Victor is your quintessential loner, his best friend is his dog, Sparky, who also happens to be the star of many of the home-made monster movies that entertain his family. At school he excels, with his assorted classmates clamouring to partner up for the latest science project, an accolade bestowed upon the hunchbacked Edgar, by virtue of him uncovering Victor’s dark secret. 

You see, Sparky becomes the tragic victim of a ball-chasing incident, and inspired by a lecture from his teacher, our pasty-faced protagonist is able to harness the power of lightening to bring him back from the dead. As a result sparks a chain reaction of copycat resurrections, and inner turmoil, which put the whole town in danger. 

Frankenweenie is riddled with moments of understated brilliance; the home movie which plays out during the opening sequence, essentially a reflection of what Burton has done with this film by creating the kind of story that he no doubt watched as a kid, establishes a sense of wonder and adoration for telling a tale, which the rest of the film matches. B-movie monsters, dogs tenderly rolling balls between a hole in the fence, and an evocative score from the usually intrusive Danny Elfman, all morphed together into a cohesive, wondrous, macabre fairytale. 

The assortments of kids are basket-case cute. Edgar in particular is adorable -- despite being a fist-shaking “little rotter” to our hero, his lisping bad-guy is a memorable creation. Add to that the water spouting Sparky, so much of the films success stems from his relationship with Victor and the strong themes of life and death which permeate Frankenweenie, and both are brilliantly brought to life by the script and animators. 

If there are any criticisms, then it’s the predictability of the yarn, with similar tales being told in the recent Paranorman and even the Burton produced Corpse Bride, and the moral lessons coming across as something of a “best of” compilation for the kids to take away and digest. But when minor quibbles are wrapped in such melancholy enchantment, they are hardly noticeable.

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Rating: 4 / 5

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