Twenty five years ago, we bought a VHS copy of “Vincent and Frankenweeine”, two shorts by Tim Burton who was rapidly becoming a big time director. The original shorts had all kinds of Gothic charm to them and the kids watched them repeatedly. Here we are in 2012 and Burton has returned to his roots with a full length stop motion feature of the live action short from his time at Disney as a young animator. You might wonder if his creative juices are dried up because his last few films have been weak and he is digging up work from the past. It turns out that what he was digging up was gold.
The original Frankenweeinie, deserved to be more well known but was limited to a short thirty minute run time. Here, Burton reinvents the film as a bigger story with more characters and bigger issues, but just as much heart. As morbid as much of his work appears to be, there is a streak of sentimentality a mile wide running through most of it. The story of a boy who loves his dog so much that he wants to bring it back from the dead will only work if we care about the characters. With this story, we will care, and be heartbroken, and joyful and heartbroken again, all while being entertained by movie memories.
The character of Victor, the boy who loses his dog in a car accident, is an everyman tale. Victor himself is not everyman, but his love for his dog and sadness over losing the only real friend he had is one that will touch anyone who has had a pet. “Sparky” the dog is a delightfully lovable vision of canine friendship. He acts like a real dog would, even though he is a animated figurine. Prior to reincarnation, “Sparky” is loyal, protective, fun loving and very clever. The fact that he remains all of these things when restored to life is the wish fulfillment of all of us. There are some great cute sequences where he and the dog next door, playfully court over a ball. “Sparky” will drop all of this however when his boy comes home from school. Victor’s parents are consoling but want him to be able to move on. At one point his dad admits that it’s easy to promise the impossible because you never have to be accountable. Near the end, when he tells Victor that “sometimes adults don’t know what they are talking about”, it is the confirmation that every kid needs to be able to keep following his dreams.
To really enjoy this film, it helps to be a fan of old horror movies. The laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein is lovingly recreated here with waffle irons, bicycles and colanders. The Rube Goldberg nature of the electrical device does not require it to make sense, it is simply entertaining. The creepy kids in the neighborhood will remind everyone of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorrie and Dwight Fry. Japanese monster movies get a nod as well with the appearance of a giant turtle to wreck havoc on the local festival.There is a cute shot where Victors parents watch an old Hammer horror film. And if you don’t recognize the image of Vincent Price in the visage of the science teacher, you must not have seen any AIP films from the fifties and sixties. When you see the windmill on the hill in the background of the little suburbia that is New Holland, well anyone who saw a Universal horror film knows what is coming.
Ultimately the story works because we love dogs and understand the horror films that are being saluted here. Winona Ryder makes her return to Tim Burtonville, voicing the odd but oddly cute girl next door. Catherine O’Hara must have the goods on Burton somewhere because she is in so many of his films as well, but she is always a welcome presence. Martin Short lends a hand to the voice cast as well and he works nicely as Victor’s well meaning but not always sharp Dad. Martin Landau works with Burton again, providing a reasonable version of Vincent Price as the science teacher whose very name strikes terror in the heart of the town. This movie is so much better than the stupid “Hotel Transylvania”, it is a shame that it is being neglected while the Adam Sandler film pulls in a bigger audience. Ten years from now, this will sit on a shelf with “The Nightmare Before Christmas”, as another Burton film that becomes beloved after it’s theatrical run.