In 1984, fledgling animator Tim Burton made a 30 minute short entitled 'Frankenweenie', a parody of the 1931 'Frankenstein' film. Soon after, he was fired by his employers Disney for making a film too dark for children. Almost twenty years on, Disney are on hand to distribute Burton's expanded stop motion animated remake of his short. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
'Frankenweenie' was the opening film of the 56th BFI London Film Festival earlier this month, an improvement on the previous year's disappointing opener '360'. Arguably, it has proved a return to form for Tim Burton, whose recent efforts 2010's 'Alice In Wonderland' and this year's 'Dark Shadows' were relatively poorly received by critics.
Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a young schoolboy, who is more interested in conducting science experiments and filming home movies with his dog Sparky than making friends. His bond with Sparky comes to an abrupt end after an accident but inspired by his eccentric foreign science teacher (Martin Landau), Victor harnesses the power of electricity to secretly bring Sparky back to life. Soon, his secret is discovered and as Victor's experiments are replicated by his fellow school mates, mayhem ensues.
'Frankenweenie' is not only indebted to horror stories such as 'Frankenstein' and B-movies like 'Godzilla' but to Burton himself. A surprisingly self-referential work, there are parallels to films like 'Corpse Bride' and 'Edward Scissorhands' - the latter especially when the reanimated Sparky is discovered and ostracised. This could be seen as a wise move, considering the widespread love of his older work, although equally it could be said that Burton's imagination is on the wane.
Nonetheless, 'Frankenweenie' is bolstered by a series of terrific moments, underlined by Danny Elfman's sweeping score. Of particular note is a touching scene between Victor and his mother (Catherine O'Hara) following Sparky's death as well as the engaging discussion of the use of science that occurs throughout the film. There also has plenty of deft touches, from references to Van Helsing and its ilk to more up-to-date comedic nods - a "Goodbye Kitty" gravestone in a pet cemetery.
The final third of the film feels rushed, the stakes dramatically increased in double quick time. Perhaps such a thing is more understandable in a stop-motion animation such as 'Frankenweenie' - the painstaking techniques needed do not especially lend themselves to feature film length material. Regardless, as Karen O's 'Strange Love' began to play during the end credits, I had already began to miss Victor and Sparky.
The animation, however, is excellent, all the more striking by the use of black and white. To watch 'Frankenweenie' in 3D is far from a necessity, and at times, is more of a distraction to what is actually a rather sweet story about friendship. Some scenes are not suitable for younger audiences, and with the dominance of its cultural references, the film is better suited to adults. This isn't so much a criticism as a guideline - 'Frankenweenie' is a loving homage to old school horror, hearfelt and comedic.
'Frankenweenie' is out in UK cinemas tomorrow, through Walt Disney Pictures.