What It Is
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) loves his dog Sparky. Each day the boy survives school while looking forward to his afternoons with his dog, in the backyard or even better, in the attic, where Sparky dutifully plays assorted parts in Victor’s movies. Mostly, he plays monsters, outfitted with tinfoil and paper wings, delivering cheerful chaos to humans played by plastic army men and dolls, in super-8 sagas that inspire Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) to ooohs and aaahs.
But Victor’s parents also worry, that he spends too much time in the attic, that he doesn’t have friends, that he might grow up to be “weird.” And so dad encourages him to take up a sport, to be like other boys. Victor’s first at bat leads directly to tragedy, when Sparky takes off after his fly ball and ends up hit by a car in the street near the ball field.
Devastated, Victor finds hope and new purpose in science class, when his teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) demonstrates how to make a dead frog’s legs twitch using an electrical charge and a plate. “Even after death,” Mr. Rzykruski intones, “the wiring remains!” Gathering together his mother’s pots and pans and every electrical appliance in the house, Victor waits for a thunderstorm, sends Sparky’s corpse through the attic skylight and brings him back to life.
So far, so like Tim Burton’s 1984 live-action short. The rest of this black and white stop-motion animated version expands the plot, adding in other resuscitation projects by Victor’s classmates, Bob (Robert Capron), Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), and Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), rather hunchbacky and called E Gore by his friends. Each brings to life a particular sort of creature, ranging from a goldfish to a beloved turtle and also a set of sea monkeys (who actually have a voice credit: Jeff Bennett). This in addition to an accident occasioned by Weird Girl (also voiced by Catherine O’Hara), who fuses her cat with a bat, producing a winged creature with ratty fur and fangs.
The many monsters upset the adults in town, who resort to the usual pitchforks and torches. This initial panic, occurring in conventional spots — school hallways, a fairground, and the local cemetery — turns into a more familiar lesson to be learned, as the parents and teachers at last take an active interest in their children’s activities and the kids — in particular Victor — begin to feel appreciated.
Why It’s Fun
Victor’s relationship with Sparky is lovely, even when the revivified dog corpse is stitched together with thick black thread and his tail or ear falls off. Their moments together ground the film’s emotional life, as do Sparky’s encounters with the poodle who lives next door, Persephone.
This poodle provides one of the film’s most effective visual jokes. She belongs to the girl who likes Victor, Elsa (Winona Ryder), and when Persephone is accidentally zapped by corpse-Sparky’s newly electrified snout, the poodle poof on her head is suddenly marked with an electric-looking bolt, much like Elsa Lanchester, as the bride in Bride of Frankenstein.
Who’s Going To Love It
Frankenweenie draws from, spoofs, and also celebrates old-time horror movie conventions, citing Frankenstein and Dracula, haunted house movies and creature features. Fans of these movies might enjoy the subtlety of these allusions.
Kids will like the combination of spooky-funny clichés, the thunder and lightning, and the shadowy bedrooms.
The film showcases Burton’s signature affection for all things odd. All of the figures, from the humans to the dogs, from the twitchy frog to the weird Girl’s big-eyed cat, are peculiar, whether in shape or movement or size. This effect is repeatedly delightful, less a function of plot than visual representation. So, the camera peers up at Toshiaki’s living dead turtle or rushes to catch up with skittering sea monkeys, emphasizing their essential dislocations in time and space, while also inviting you to imagine how they might inhabit the bleak black and white world on screen.
What To Be Aware Of
The essential idea — bringing corpses back to life — is, of course, macabre. That said, this creepy notion is handled with a light touch.
The Weird Girl’s cat produces poops in the shape of people’s initials, which the Weird Girl then uses to predict odious future events.
Victor’s classmates are rendered as old-style stereotypes, the awkward overweight child, the intellectually aggressive Japanese boy, the lumbering slow thinker, and the overeager and comically pathetic disabled boy.
Sparky’s death is very sad. Actually, it’s sad twice, for he appears to be dead a second time near film’s end.
The kids make fun of Victor and Bob, who is overweight.
Victor and Sparky end up in a burning building, facing some peril.
8 out of 10
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchata Ferrell, Winona Ryder
Studio: Walt Disney Motion Pictures
US General Release: October 5, 2012
UK General Release: October 17, 2012