Tim Burton pays homage to classic monster films with “Frankenweenie.”
Photo by Courtesy Walt Disney
“Frankenweenie” is a bugaboo farce about life after death. Tim Burton, the fabulously outrageous and creative spinner of timeless yarns, reincarnates his 1984 live-action short film of the same name. The original film scared the kiddies and was shelved into oblivion. Digging deeper into the bones of the story and adding some tangible kid friendliness, Burton ambitiously resurrects the dead short into a visually sophisticated, black and white, stop-motion animated feature.
The film is set back in a time where moms still wear hourglass dresses of the Christian Dior-June Cleaver era and read romance novels after vacuuming. Dads are patient and never yell at their families. Kids still want to win the science competitions and there’s a weird, cute girl next door with a poodle. In Burton’s homegrown surreal version of a Norman Rockwell America, you can find a boy named Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and his only friend Sparky, a four-legged terrier with a long snout and wiggly tail.
Victor is a loner among his creepy peers. A girl with long white hair carries around her clairvoyant kitty, Mr. Whiskers. Mr. Whiskers leaves a V-shaped turd in the litter box—an omen that something bad is going to happen to Victor. The girl warns Victor that Mr. Whiskers is never wrong. Shortly after that, Sparky gets struck by a car.
The screenplay, written by John August, is bland. It lacks the zesty cleverness of “Beetlejuice,” featuring a married pair of ghosts and a frisky pocket-sized demon, or “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” where the living dead warble out fearsome tunes. But the story is heartfelt in a “Big Fish” way (for which August also wrote the script). “Big Fish” delved into the death of a parent; this film looks at the death of a pet. The first time most kids deal with death is through a pet. It’s a difficult transition, and “Frankenweenie” takes on a child’s make-believe perspective of everlasting doggie life. Danny Elfman’s score blurs the emotions, and if you have ever lost a beloved pet, the movie may cause you to evoke a tear or two.
The high point of the film is the attic resurrection scene, where Burton’s creative visual energy is on warp speed. We see the pale student of unhallowed arts (that would be Victor and basic science) kneeling beside his dead dog, which he has taken from the pet cemetery after his science teacher demonstrated the use of electricity on a dead frog. Victor had to sneak the corpse past his snuggled-up parents, who are watching the live action version “Dracula,” starring Christopher Lee, on the television set.
Victor places Sparky on the gurney and electrifies his best friend back to life. “He’s alive!” gleefully shouts a hunchback classmate of Victor named Edgar E. Gore when the dog gets loose. Victor’s classmates conspire to learn his secrets, and Victor feels the weight of what he has done. Should the dead be brought back to life?
“Frankenweenie” is an incredible piece of moving art, well suited for adults and younger audiences, but particularly for Burton fans, who will appreciate the homage to classic monster films.
For instance, buried in the local pet cemetery is a turtle named “Shelley.” The turtle, which gets zapped back to life and grows impossibly large because of an unfortunate helping of Miracle-Gro, shares its name with Mary Shelley, the author of the novel “Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus.”
“Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world,” Shelley wrote. This film stabs into the nutty and incongruous and endeavors to understand the stupendous mechanism of life ever after.