The original half-hour version of “Frankenweenie” almost did Tim Burton in.
Rather than release it in 1984, the folks at Disney sent Burton packing, told him he’d wasted their precious resources and advised him not to let the door hit his keester on the way out.
If it weren’t for the perspicacity of Paul Reuben and friends – who rescued Burton to direct “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” – Tim Burton might have been among the many unfortunates ground up forever in the machine of Hollywood big studio idiocy.
Instead, he became one of the most talented filmmakers alive. There is no greater recent fable about the life of the artist than “Edward Scissorhands;” his “Batman” was the first madcap indication that there was a previously unsuspected territory where art films and blockbusters could not only meet but party down with reckless abandon.
So here it is in 2012 and a very different Disney staked Burton the resources to do a full-length, stop-action “Frankenweenie.” It’s an animated glory.
What is doubly wonderful about “Frankenweenie” is not only the movie itself – which is scary, suspenseful, emotionally moving and laugh-out loud funny – but that it represents a glorious resistance to being “branded.” by a key 21st century American film artist.
Cold, calculated commercial branding is what happened with Burton’s sadly and flamboyantly underwhelming “Alice in Wonderland.” It made several tons of money and was elaborately ignorable when you saw it and profoundly unmemorable afterwards.
Granted, “Frankenweenie” is in 3-D, but it is otherwise in glorious black and white with a couple actors – former SCTV prodigies Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara – voicing three characters apiece.
I kind of loved it. I laughed out loud often. How can you beat an animated film in which a kid’s wacked-out next door neighbor finds the shape of the dividends left by the cat in her litter box to be portents of things to come?
Our little hero, young Victor Frankenstein (the voice of Charlie Tahan) is not only the budding young filmmaker of the town of “New Holland,” he’s also the suburb’s scientist-in-the-making.
His science teacher even tells him so. That’s the cadaverous and downright dire Mr. Rzykruski (pronounced “Rice-Krooski”). He’s voiced by the splendid Martin Landau, who, at the age of 84, has been one of Burton’s faves ever since he played Bela Lugosi in Burton’s “Ed Wood.”
All is not ideal, though. In typical all-American style, Victor’s dad wants his son to be a sports star – baseball in particular.
Because Victor has what seems to be the happiest and most lovable dog in the neighborhood – an ever-affectionate little mutt named Sparky – he’s accompanied by the dog to his first big game. Unfortunately, Victor’s baseball stardom has tragic consequences. When Victor hits a towering home run into East Cheeseport, Sparky thinks his sweet little master is playing a very creative game of “go fetch.” Sparky is run over and killed.
Which, of course, gives budding scientist Victor Frankenstein all the impetus he needs to collect Mom’s muffin tins, waffle iron, etc. and create a device that brings Sparky back to life.
When all the neighborhood kids catch on to how it’s done, the nabe is suddenly run over by a turtle the size of Godzilla, a cat that’s turned into a bat, and all manner of sea monkeys ready to celebrate life by laughing at everybody and crawling all over them.
What all that means is that the substantial horror quotient in “Frankenweenie” makes it a wee bit too rough for the littlest consumers of things like the much-milder “Hotel Transylvania” but remains perfectly delightful for older kids and teenagers.
The movie is full of delightful morsels. I especially liked the doings on “Dutch Day” in New Holland, including the pompous mayor’s ever-so-slightly Goth niece (a delightful Winona Ryder) who, before she sings the town songs, confides merrily to her fellow townsfolk “I welcome death.”
I’m not even going to tell you how her poodle turns into the Bride of Frankenstein. It’s another of the film’s bellylaughs.
Let me freely admit that the four-star rating for this film comes from one simple fact: Tim Burton’s stout resistance to being turned into a movie brand and insistence on being a wildly inventive film artist is about as good as movie news gets. It gets a half-star all by itself.
By all means, go.