Frankenweenie

Cast:
Catherine O’Hara as Mrs. Frankenstien / Weird Girl / Gym Teacher (voice)
Martin Short as Mr. Frankenstein / Mr. Burgemeister / Nassor (voice)
Martin Landau as Mr. Rzykruski (voice)
Charlie Tahan as Victor Frankenstien (voice)
Atticus Shaffer as Edgar ‘E’ Gore (voice)
Winona Ryder as Elsa Van Helsing (voice)
Robert Capron as Bob (voice)
Conchata Ferrell as Bob’s Mom (voice)
James Hiroyuki Liao as Toshiaki (voice)
Tom Kenny as New Holland Townsfolk (voice)

Directed by Tim Burton

Summary:
Nods to classic horror monsters, amazing animation, and a return to old school Tim Burton form make “Frankenweenie” a lot of fun, but a largely spoiled plot and a bland lead character keep the film from reaching its full potential.

Story:
Victor Frankenstein is a young boy living in the town of New Holland. He’s extremely intelligent, but he doesn’t have many friends. Victor is OK with that, though, because he has his dog Sparky to keep him company. That is until Sparky is tragically hit by a car and killed. However, Victor isn’t willing to say goodbye just yet.

Victor uses his scientific knowledge to bring Sparky back to life! While he is overjoyed that his friend is alive again, Victor now must hide Sparky from the rest of the world. But it’s not long before his secret gets out and the town is turned upside down by the revelation.

“Frankenweenie” is rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action.

What Worked:
I had particularly good timing in taking my kids to see “Frankenweenie” when I did. You see, the weekend before we saw it, I showed them the original “Dracula,” “Frankenstein” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon” from Universal’s new Classic Monsters Blu-ray set. They have become enthralled by the classic movie monsters and they got every reference and tip of the hat that appeared in “Frankenweenie.” From Igor to the burning windmill to the Bride of Frankenstein jokes, they got it. This film is all about love for those original horror films, and anybody that gets that is going to enjoy “Frankenweenie” on a whole other level from those who aren’t familiar with them. Fortunately my kids understood what Tim Burton was doing and they loved it, and so did I.

While a healthy knowledge of “Frankenstein” is critical for seeing “Frankenweenie,” there are a lot of other great movie references here, too. The teacher Mr. Rzykruski is modeled after Vincent Price. Nassor is modeled after Boris Karloff. A turtle is named Shelley after “Frankenstein” writer Mary Shelley. There are also references to “The Mummy,” “The Wolf Man,” “Dracula,” “The Invisible Man” and even “Gamera.” There are even a few I probably missed on the first viewing. I’ll just reiterate what I already said – if you love classic horror movies, this is required viewing for you.

While the nods to those films are a lot of the fun of “Frankenweenie,” there is a lot of the old school Tim Burton humor in here, too. A character named Weird Girl carries around a cat named Mr. Whiskers who steals every scene he’s in. The two bug-eyed characters bring laughs just from their physical appearance alone. (She’s very reminiscent of Luna Lovegood from the “Harry Potter” movies.) There’s also a great scene where Martin Landau as Mr. Rzykruski has a parent-teacher conference that goes hilariously wrong as the eccentric science teacher speaks his mind. I think every teacher in the world probably wants to say what he says at some time in their career… or possibly on a daily basis. Then there are all sorts of little jokes in the background like the tombstones in the pet cemetery, little objects in Victor’s lab, and more. Overall this feels more like an old school Tim Burton movie than anything he’s done lately.

While computer-animated movies are all the rage in family films, “Frankenweenie” showcases the stop-motion animation that still manages to be impressive. As the puppets act out the scenes on the screen, you can’t help but marvel at the detail of the characters and the sets. It’s also mind-blowing to think about how much time and effort it took to generate every second of film. Appreciation for the filmmaking technique is enhanced with the 3D as you can see every blade of grass move, every thread on Frankenweenie’s screws, and every drop of rain in the storm scenes. It’s an amazing technical and artistic achievement.

I’ve always been a fan of Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short, so it was exciting to see them each play three different characters in the film. While their roles as Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein are fairly standard, they get to cut loose with some of the other roles. O’Hara is fun as the Weird Girl and the Gym Teacher. Short is almost unrecognizable as Mr. Burgemeister and Nassor. And, of course, the aforementioned Martin Landau is excellent as the Vincent Price teacher Mr. Rzykruski.

What Didn’t Work:
Unfortunately, the trailers spoil the first 30 minutes of the film. That’s about when Frankenweenie is finally resurrected. In fact, the trailers and commercials spoil the highlights of the first hour of the movie. You pretty much know every beat of the film up until that point and there are very few surprises or scenes we haven’t seen. That leaves the last 20 minutes or so to deliver. Fortunately, they’re entertaining enough to save the film, but even now I’m seeing more and more of those surprises ruined in the commercials leading up to the release date.

I was also a bit disappointed in the character of Victor Frankenstein and his parents. While the rest of the kids in the town have amusing or weird quirks to make them memorable, Victor is simply an average kid. He’s nice, polite, smart, and otherwise normal except for the mad science lab he has. I think he needed some characteristics to make him a tad less dull. Maybe that was the point of his character – by being normal he’s the oddball in the town. But the end result was he was just a bland character in a movie filled with colorful characters (or as colorful as they can be in a black and white movie).

The story was unsatisfying in a couple of other respects. I was wondering how the movie was going to treat the subject of death and letting loved ones go. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you here, but by the end of “Frankenweenie” I don’t feel like they had anything deep to tell children on the subject. This movie isn’t going to prepare your kids for the death of a pet. They’re more likely to try and fry the dead critter with a wire coat hanger they plug in an outlet. If it worked for Victor, it could work for them, right? The other unsatisfying part of the film was the resolution of the final fate of the cat, Mr. Whiskers. He easily became an audience favorite during this movie, but he meets a rather depressing end. Our family was unanimous in saying we didn’t like what they did to Mr. Whiskers. See it yourself and decide on your own.

Finally, the grand finale of the movie can be a tad scary to younger kids. There are monsters popping out for scares and terrorizing people. While it’s all silly puppets and comedy, if you have a sensitive kid, it might be too much for them. I let my seven-year-old son see “Jaws” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and even he was leaning in closer to his mother as the finale of “Frankenweenie” played out. He ended up loving it, but I can see some more sensitive kids getting freaked out. In short, you know what your kid can handle. Heed the PG rating or pay for the therapy bills.

The Bottom Line:
“Frankenweenie” is going to please a lot of different crowds. Kids will love the Halloween scares and cute animals. Movie fans will love the homage to classic monster movies. Tim Burton fans will be glad to see him return to old form. Animation fans will love the stop-motion technique. In short, there’s something here for young and old. Check it out on the big screen in 3D.

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