Director: Tim Burton
Cast: The voices of Charlie Tahan, Catherine O'Hara, Martin Short, Atticus Shaffer, Winona Ryder, Martin Landau
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements, scary images and action)
Running Time: 1:27
Release Date: 10/5/12
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 5, 2012
Tim Burton returns to his roots with Frankenweenie, a stop-motion adaptation and extension of his 1984 live-action short, and while the results are underwhelming, it is one of the better directorial efforts from Burton in a while. That, though, says more about Burton than the movie itself.
Here are glimpses of the old Burton, who could take genuinely grotesque concepts and imbue them with the sense of a warped fairy tale. It simply isn't enough, for example, the dog, as implied by the title, dies and its corpse becomes reanimated.
No, this dog is something of an abomination—a really cute one, though—with stitching suggesting horrific trauma to its poor frame after being hit by a car (Kids will probably imagine simple decoration; adults will involuntarily twitch at the realization of what all that needlework around its neck means). When the unnatural beast—again, it is an adorable little guy—laps up some water, it begins to spray from the seams in its torso. He plays around in the sprinkler of his own, inadvertent creation, and whatever qualms we might have had about the implications of the canine's gruesome form disappear.
The dog isn't the only oddity in the movie. The story eventually introduces a series of creatures mutated from the corpses of beloved pets (After an opening scene showing the hero's homemade monster movie, we have to give an anticipatory chuckle for the eventual results when someone digs up his pet turtle) and shrimp in novelty packaging, but it's the humans here that are really quite strange. They have the appearance of death warmed over themselves, with their skeletal frames, humungous eye sockets, and sharp faces (The more rotund characters just have larger cheeks and jowls). That the movie is entirely in black-and-white only emphasizes the sensation (The 3-D presentation gives the movie an oilier texture, which doesn't distract too much).
The movie has an air of death and decay that at times consumes everything within it. The story starts a happy one about a young boy named Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) and his dog Sparky (What else would it be named?). Sparky is, as Victor's parents (voices of Catherine O'Hara and Martin Short) note, the boy's only friend in the world. They go everywhere and do everything together, which leads to the poor dog's eventual downfall when it chases after a baseball Victor has hit into the street at his first game. The sad end to the story is a car.
Victor is inconsolable. His father tells him that if he could bring Sparky back he would. Victor's science teacher (voice of Martin Landau), who has a few too many consonants in his name, shows how an electric shock through the dead body of a frog can make it move. The wiring, he says, is still in place. Victor decides to test it on a larger scale, and after a night of grave-robbing and gathering as many appliances as he can find, Victor sets about bringing Sparky back to life like a mad scientist of old.
Burton's influences are obvious, from the aforementioned scene to the climax featuring a mob with torches at a windmill, with a poodle—Sparky's bride, if you will—obtaining a white streak in its tall cone of hair somewhere in between. Victor's hunchbacked assistant—though not through the boy's choice—is named Edgar (voice of Atticus Shaffer). He has a familiar accent, and from the credits, we learn his nickname is "E" and his surname is Gore. Edgar wants the details of Victor's methods to win the school science fair, but since the conditions—namely that Victor doesn't want to go through with a repeat of the experiment—change, the results become unpredictable.
This raises some obvious ethical issues, and the screenplay by John August isn't afraid to tackle them. The school's science teacher gives an impassioned if inelegant speech about the importance of science and discovery, which doesn't help matters. The townsfolk are especially horrified when the teacher announces he wants their children's brains. When Victor's father learns of his son's experiment, note the care with which he chooses a key word in describing what his son has done and that he doesn't say "wrong."
All of this is abandoned in the climax, which focuses on the chaos wrought by a group of monsters of various students' creation. It's amusing, for sure, especially one named "Colossus" that provides two punch lines.
Still, something is amiss. Perhaps what's missing amidst the movie's homages and PG-friendly horror showcases is a connection between the humans' story and Sparky's own. The most affecting scene in Frankweenie has nothing to do with the bond between Victor and his best friend but instead follows the dog, alone in a sort of existential crisis. Feeling an outcast, it instinctually decides to go "home" to the pet cemetery and rest on its grave. This is a good dog, yes, but also a wise one.
Note: As useless as I generally consider observations of the audience to be, I must provide a hopeful one about the children in the audience of the screening I attended: Not a single one complained that the movie was in black-and-white.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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