I’m not one who worships at the altar of Tim Burton, probably disliking his films as often as I am moved by them. For every effort as emotionally rich as “Sweeney Todd,” there’s something as flat and wankish as “Dark Shadows.”
But I fell hard for “Frankenweenie,” an extrapolation of a short film Burton made almost 30 years ago, just before he directed “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and launched himself. This stop-motion animation film (in black and white) is dazzlingly dark – and darkly comic.
Of course it’s not funny when young Victor’s dog, Sparky, dies early on in “Frankenweenie” – and I didn’t say “spoiler alert” because, well, this is a comedy about a dog brought back from the dead. So the dog has to die.
But it’s the blend of physical and visual comedy that heightens suspense that makes “Frankenweenie” soar. It has heart but it’s both smart and knowing.
Victor’s last name happens to be Frankenstein and he’s a happy if introverted tween who spends his time making solitary miniature monster movies in his bedroom, using his dog Sparky as the makeshift dinosaur creature. Victor’s dad (voiced by Martin Short) wishes Victor would go outdoors and play baseball – which he does, leading indirectly to Sparky being hit by a car.
But when Victor’s fascinating and brilliant science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), demonstrates the ways electricity can be used to reanimate lifeless flesh, young Victor is inspired. He builds a device to hoist Sparky’s lifeless corpse (which he has retrieved from its grave) into the sky, where it will attract lightning in a storm. Which does, in fact, zap Sparky back to yappy, happy life.
This should be horrible, of course – but Burton and writer John August make it funny by bringing Sparky back as his same lovable, doggy self. Except that he’s dead. But he’ll run fine, as long as you occasionally jolt him with electricity (and re-stitch the odd piece of him that falls off). Don’t think of him as deceased; think of him as a hybrid, with a clean-energy afterlife.
Victor can’t let anyone know his experiment has worked, because, um, they’ve buried the dog already. But one creepy little pal, Edgar (Atticus Shaffer from “The Middle”), discovers his classmate’s secret. And, what with the upcoming school science fair, none of Victor’s ambitious classmates wants to miss a chance to be the one who brings a reanimated dead pet as his or her entry. But there’s a big difference between their results and Victor’s.
Burton finds a way to bring in the public fear of science, through a growing mob of people afraid of the reanimated corpse of a dog that happens to be a kid’s pet. The script cascades their mounting problems into one exciting, horrifyingly imaginative finale.
Is “Frankenweenie” too emotionally complex for younger children? Probably; there are a few bad dreams lurking in the scary monsters that Victor’s classmates spawn. But the post-7-year-old crowd should be thrilled and amused by Burton’s graveyard humor, as will their parents.
Is it in bad taste to make a comedy about bringing dead pets back to life? Well, of course; that’s why it’s funny. But it’s all a matter of degree, I guess. Is it in any worse taste to adapt Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as a comedy than to tell the original story of a man creating another man? Is it that we’re making fun? Is that it?
The animation is fluid, seamless and alive. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better animated film this year than “Frankenweenie.” And I don’t know that I will.Print This Post