'Frankenweenie': Disney's Bold Move
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
This is a movie that deserves some commendation strictly due to the fact that it exists, and that it exists in a particular way. It's one thing to make a stop-motion puppet animation feature film. It's another thing to make a stop-motion puppet animation film in black and white. It's yet another thing to make a stop-motion puppet animation film in black and white and 3-D. And it's still another thing to have your black-and-white 3-D stop-motion puppet animation film bankrolled and distributed -- into thousands of theaters, yet -- by Disney.
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The case of "Frankenweenie" becomes even more interesting if you recollect that the original 1984 short film that is the basis for this feature was also a Disney project, albeit one that got its creator fired, from both the project and the studio, for making something so weird and un-Disney-like. That said creator turned out to be Tim Burton, who in the intervening years has not only returned to the Disney fold, but made hundreds of millions of dollars for the studio, kind of explains everything.
Written by longtime Burton collaborator John August, this "Frankenweenie" has the same morbid-clever high concept as the original, in which a horror movie-obsessed young outcast brings a beloved pet back to life by methods gleaned from old Universal pictures. The, um, fleshing out of said concept draws on tropes and visual motifs Burton followers will instantly recognize: For instance, there's a real "Edward Scissorhands" vibe to the young hero's hometown of New Holland, whose picturesque windmill on a distant hill is the site for the movie's fiery climax.
The movie is relatively inventive in that it doesn't make its young hero, Victor Frankenstein, into a standard-issue outcast mocked by his peers. The kid actually joins a youth baseball team, and it's at a game that his frolicsome pup, Sparky, suffers his first fatal mishap. However, the switch here is that New Holland's children are all patterned after monster movie characters: There's one tall lurcher, one drooling hunchback, one (or was it two?) wide-eyed waifish not-entirely goth girls. These puppets certainly provide visual interest, but the truth of the matter is that they don't really function as characters.
Indeed, throughout "Frankenweenie" I was nagged by the feeling that the main motivating force behind the film is to convey that its makers really, really, really love old-school horror movies. And indeed I concur with them. But at one point, watching a scene in which Victor's envious friends uncover his attic lab and find the secret of regenerating dormant pet life, I thought, "That's a pretty nifty lab he's got there. It's almost as good as the one in 'Bride of Frankenstein.'" Which in turn led to the thought, "Which I could be looking at right now. If I was watching 'Bride of Frankenstein.'"
I understand that part of this movie's mission could indeed be to convince today's kids (many of whom are thought to be irrationally hostile to black and white, for instance) of the niftiness of the classic fare it so lovingly references. But for this viewer, the preaching was to the long-ago converted.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film
critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various
publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He
lives in Brooklyn.