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Contender – Best Animated Film, Frankenweenie


Tim Burton

Director Tim Burton once proclaimed that he would love the chance to direct a gothic horror movie. In its own way, the 2012 stop-motion animated film Frankenweenie might represent his best chance to date. Heavily based on Burton’s 1984 short of the same name, in its essence about a boy scientist who brings a deceased pet back to life, Frankenweenie pays due homage to classic horror films of yesterday while offering top modern cinematic crafts in every department.

Frankenweenie’s most palpable reference is the 1931 Universal classic Frankenstein, most obviously in its title and the naming of its lead character, the child Victor Frankenstein (who, in the Universal legacy, was the original Dr. Frankenstein’s son), but in many visual respects as well. Burton’s choice to film the new project in richly contrasting black-and-white evokes the Universal films with clever placement of the electrical equipment in Victor’s family’s attic resembling the famed gear from the 1931 film constructed by Kenneth Strickfaden. Certainly, the hilltop placement of a windmill in Frankenweenie’s fictitious town of New Holland is a visual quote from Universal’s Frankenstein, with both films climaxing in a ferocious fire in said windmill. Less obvious but no less endearing is the naming of a female character Elsa Van Helsing, a reference to the vampire-hunting character from Dracula, Van Helsing, but also to Elsa Lanchester who played the bride in The Bride of Frankenstein in the 1935 sequel to Frankenstein. Cinematographer Peter Sorg, a lighting cameraman on Burton’s previous stop-motion effort, Corpse Bride, frames all of this material in lush tones reminiscent of the classics while giving Frankenweenie its own distinct world in which the stop-motion animators can carefully place their characters.

Of note, that world, lovingly designed by longtime Burton veteran Rich Heinrichs, recalls the Universal films’ environs while brandishing New Holland as a fully Burton-esque landscape to which one might draw parallels with Burton’s live-action projects Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands. Not surprisingly, Heinrichs designed and produced Burton’s 1982 stop-motion short Vincent, associate produced the 1984 short version of Frankenweenie, consulted on Beetlejuice’s visual effects and designed sets on Edward Scissorhands, in addition to many additional projects with Burton and others as production designer from the 1990s right through today.

All of Frankenweenie’s characters are distinctly fashioned, at once giving them the caricatured enhancements that are often found in computer-generated animated films, but also giving them their own personalities that work in and of themselves and are wholly endemic to the timeless but seemingly 1960s world of the film. As with Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s Victor is a stranger in a strange land, a suburban sprawl in which he is misunderstood by nearly everyone, even his kind parents, save a science teacher (hilariously realized and played by Burton alumnus Martin Landau).

Other characters resemble Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster from the 1931 film and Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant Fritz as played by Dwight Frye in that same film. A monstrous dinosaur character, released upon New Holland during the concluding sequences in the film, offers a fleeting but touching nod to stop-motion animator, Ray Harryhausen.

Ironically to the theme of the film, the stop-motion characters live and breathe as tangible entities in this world that, had they been rendered with computer-generated animation, might not have worked as effectively. Interestingly, Burton’s main foray into computer-generated animation, Mars Attacks! was originally intended to feature stop-motion aliens in favor of the eventual computer-generated animation. In point, Frankenweenie’s characters are so vital and perfectly situated for this material, the only possible equal from Burton’s body of work might be The Nightmare Before Christmas, for which Burton created the characters and co-wrote the story though it was actually directed by Henry Selick.

After the painstaking animation was complete, putting Burton’s Frankenweenie vision together again on his team were Danny Elfman doing the riveting musical score and Chris Lebenzon as picture editor, with Mark Solomon, wearing a decidedly different hat than he did on recent live-action Burton films such as Dark Shadows and Sweeney Todd.

In the end, the wonders of Frankenweenie and its evident successes as an animated work, fantasy film and purely entertaining endeavor of any kind, suggest that Burton and his key team are capable of unlimited possibilities in cinema. Perhaps Burton’s urges to do a gothic horror film have been satisfied by expanding his early short into this feature. If not, it might be even more remarkable for this team to attempt as ambitious a live-action project as those 1930s films in the same milieu.

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