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Frankenweenie

Like a nostalgia trip with old friends. If not a complete return to form for Burton, he’s(at least)almost there. This lovingly rendered update(of his 1984 short)gets so many things right that it seems to be quibbling to harp on some minor missteps. Most of the elements from the 1984 live-action mini-film are in place(although I can’t help but miss the genius of that miniature golf course windmill finale!), but he changes the 3rd act drastically. It’s not bad, but it’s certainly a different direction. All of  a sudden a story about a boy raising his pet dog from the dead becomes a tale about an experiment gone awry involving multiple resurrections and garish mutations. Well, it fleshes this creation out to feature-length, that’s for sure. And if it doesn’t quite have the heart of the original incarnation, I have to say that some of that blame bugaboo goes to the unavoidable category of “we’ve seen all this before”. I think that if you don’t revisit the original first(like I did just a few weeks ago), this material will seem much fresher. With or without a retro-peek, however, the new stop-motion, b&w “Frankenweenie”(I did not attend the Imax and/or 3D versions)is a gas.

Grade school age Victor Frankenstein(voice of Charlie Tahan)loses his pet dog “Sparky” to a car accident. Despite his loving parents condolences and support, an inconsolable Victor comes to the conclusion during science class that he will dig up the corpse of his pup—and attempt to re-animate it. Then in his attic “laboratory”(a sublime homage to the priceless Universal “mad doctor” sets of yore), he harnesses some lightening during a storm—and brings good-old Sparky back from the dead. Except for a collage of gruesome Universal classmates—the film follows the original’s script most of the way. But that final section takes an entirely new path. Victor’s school pals get a hold of his Promethean ideas and set out on their own re-animation adventures with the intention of taking first prize at the school’s science fair. But they get some steps drastically wrong, and some of the newly revived pets become mutated monstrosities—including giant turtles and flying bat-like cats. It all wraps up with a windmill fire and jumper cables(not a golf course windmill, but otherwise pretty close to the 1984 version), and the townsfolk make the decision as to whether to accept the undead Sparky, or not.

I’m crazy about the respect given to not only Universal Pictures, but Hammer Films and Toho Studios as well. How else to interpret Gamera-like reptiles, and Christopher Lee’s brief television screen appearance in a clip from 1958’s “Horror of Dracula”. And then there’s the delightfully demented and monikered group from Victor’s elementary school. Atticus Shaffer supplies the voice of young Edgar “E” Gore(Dwight Frye—your impact lives on!). Another classmate is spoken by Martin Short, and given the appearance of Boris Karloff’s iconic Frankenstein monster—along with the late actor’s lisping cadence. Add the “Beetlejuice” reunion vocal casting of Winona Ryder and Catherine O’Hara. And the dizzying effect of having Martin Landau(Oscar-winner for Best Supporting Actor for Burton’s own “Ed Wood” from 1994)provide the voice for science instructor, Mr. Rzykruski. The teacher’s look is obviously modeled after the great Vincent Price, but spoken with the thick European accent of the immortal Bela Lugosi—the very characterization for which Mr. Landau garnered his Academy Award! Priceless. There’s plenty of other stuff that will only be discernible to fans of the creaky gothic classics, but everyone can enjoy this new “Frankenweenie” even if you don’t have a clue as to who James Whale and/or Todd Browning are. But you should know. And maybe Tim Burton’s latest will prompt you to queue up some of their creepy masterworks in time for Halloween. You won’t be sorry—or will you?!     Grade:  B+

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