Do you remember “Frankenweenie,” the 2012 black-and-white, stop-motion animated film about a kid attempting to revive his deceased family dog? Whether you recognize the name or not, you may have noticed that the movie aired 10 years ago. Released in theaters back in October 2012, the Tim Burton-directed project is remembered fondly by both diehard Burton fans and general enthusiasts of stop-motion animation. The movie received generally positive reviews and grossed over $80 million at the global box office.
“Frankenweenie” is an obvious homage to the classic horror story of “Frankenstein,” but what may surprise you is that it’s a feature-length remake of a 1984 short film by the same name. Burton’s earlier version was live-action and follows many similar plot points throughout its half-hour runtime: A young scientist and aspiring filmmaker named Victor Frankenstein has a bull terrier named Sparky, who dies after being struck by a car. Victor learns about electric pulses in school, inspiring him to devise an experiment that uses lightning to bring Sparky back to life. The experiment successfully resurrects the dog, but eventually catches the attention of Victor’s neighbors and peers.
Despite the creative premise, executives at Walt Disney Pictures were not the most supportive of Burton’s gothic filmmaking. The child-friendly, conservative brand image Disney aimed to preserve made “Frankenweenie” (1984) an outlier that was deemed “too scary for kids.” After the short film was released, Burton “parted ways” with Disney, stating in an interview: “It was a ‘thank you very much, but you go your way and we’ll go our way’ kind of thing.” Up until the late 2000s, Burton directed projects for multiple film distributors, only producing “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “James and the Giant Peach” for Disney within that timeframe.
Burton was later hired to direct two 3D films for Disney: the 2010 version of “Alice in Wonderland” and a (poetic) revival of “Frankenweenie.” John August, who wrote the screenplays for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Corpse Bride,” also wrote the script for the animated remake. Once the script was completed, the voice cast was organized for the film, including notable actors such as Catherine O’Hara (known for “Beetlejuice” and “Home Alone”), Martin Landau (known for “Ed Wood”) and Winona Ryder (known for “Beetlejuice” and “Edward Scissorhands”), all of whom had previously worked with Burton. As with another project from Burton, “Corpse Bride,” the stop-motion animation for “Frankenweenie” was a difficult process. Two hundred puppets had to be made for the movie, the most complicated being Sparky, who had 300 parts made to resemble a “dog-sized” canine.
If you know anything about Burton’s classic flicks, you already know their soundtracks are often composed by the legendary Danny Elfman, and “Frankenweenie” is no exception. Elfman, previously the lead vocalist of the band Oingo Boingo, has had a stellar career making soundtracks for all types of cinema. His resume includes renowned films such as “Batman” (1989), “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” all of which Burton either directed or produced. Although Elfman wrote every track for “Frankenweenie,” multiple pop bands and solo singers covered songs from the film’s soundtrack in an album titled “Frankenweenie Unleashed!”
“Frankenweenie” made film history as the first black-and-white feature-length and stop-motion animated film to be released in IMAX theaters. However, the movie opened to barely over 3,000 theaters and gained $11.5 million over its opening weekend. The movie earned over $35 million domestically (in the United States) and more than $46 million internationally, totaling a gross profit of over $81 million. With a reported budget of $39 million, “Frankenweenie” barely made double its reported budget. The common rule of thumb within the film industry is that movies need to make back twice their budget in order to “break even” with production and marketing costs, so “Frankenweenie” barely avoided being considered a financial failure to the production studio.
Reviews for the film were generally positive. Rotten Tomatoes reported an 88% and 70% approval score for critics and audience, respectively. Metacritic has a weighted average “Metascore” of 74%, meaning that the movie was generally favored. Likewise, Cinemascore ranked the movie with a letter grade of B+. Christy Lemire of The Associated Press gave an overall positive perspective on the movie, stating: “Beautifully detailed and painstakingly rendered in 3-D, black-and-white, stop-motion animation, ‘Frankenweenie’ is a visual and thematic return to the best Burton has offered in his earliest films, such as ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Beetlejuice.’”
Although the positive reviews for the film highlighted everything from the characters to the plot progression, critics were especially enamored with the stylized stop-motion animation. Elizabeth Weitzman of Daily News praised the animation, sharing, “Burton’s extraordinary powers of imagination are in dazzling bloom, from the gorgeous stop-motion animation to the goofy, homemade horror movies the children direct.” Amy Biancolli of the San Francisco Chronicle added, “The overall effect is great cinema, good fun, a visual feast for pie-eyed Burton fans — and a terrifically warped reminder of just how freaky a PG film can be.” Furthermore, Stephen Whitty of the Newark Star-Ledger expressed more praise for the animation, writing, “The stop-motion animation — a favorite tool of Burton’s — is given loving attention, and the character design is full of terrific touches, such as the hulking flat-topped schoolmate who looks a bit like a certain man-made monster.”
“Frankenweenie” was nominated for multiple awards, with the most notable being an Academy Award for best animated feature. Despite being nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, the movie did not claim any of these accolades. However, the film won Saturn Awards for two categories: best animated feature (Tim Burton) and best music (Danny Elfman). Even with its limited recognition, the film has grown to become a cult classic and a personal addition to my watch list of Halloween movie staples. I would highly recommend that you try out “Frankenweenie” and enjoy a shocking, yet heartfelt story for this upcoming spooky holiday.