Animated reanimation in ‘Frankenweenie’
Updated: October 5, 2012 9:37AM
The heart-warming story of a boy and his reanimated dog.
Though Tim Burton has one bona fide animated masterpiece to his credit (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”) and another that’s none too shabby (“Corpse Bride”), it’s sometimes easy to forget that the director of “Batman” and “Beetlejuice” and “Alice in Wonderland” began his career with the desire to become an animator and that he worked for a short time for Disney before striking out on his own with a series of live-action shorts.
The live-action “Frankenweenie,” which Burton made in 1984, the year before he made is feature debut with “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure,” was in fact originally conceived as a feature-length, stop-motion animated film — though he didn’t have the resources at the time to make that happen. Now he does, of course, and one thing his new “Frankenweenie” has in abundance is the sense that Burton revels in having the wherewithal to bring his vision to life in a visually splendid manner.
The new “Frankenweenie” looks sumptuous. It’s no surprise that Burton’s settings and shots are eccentrically dazzling, but something new has been added. The new technology lets us take a step closer to the puppets, so that we can see the textures of the materials they are made of. They look like puppets. Their seams show. And somehow that gives them a subtle sort of vulnerability that gives everything that’s happening on screen an extra layer of poignancy.
The fact that beyond the basic premise there’s little that’s unexpected or inventive or particularly amusing about the way the story unfolds is a bit of a disappointment, but one that’s easily forgiven. “Frankenweenie” is, above all, a mood piece, blending nostalgia for childhood with affection for golden-age monster movies to tell a tale of a scientifically minded boy who loves his pet dog so much that he brings him back from the dead.
Set in a bland, ‘60s-looking small town reminiscent of “Edward Scissorhands,” “Frankenweenie” relates events in the life of a typical American family in a typical American community — except that most of the characters are either named after or are based on classic monsters or monster-movie actors. And the whole setup has a distinctly Burton-esque tinge of weirdness.
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is pretty much a normal kid (aside from looking like a consumptive poet), who loves science (his Vincent Price-channeling mad science teacher is voiced by Martin Landau), tolerates his parents (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) and is beginning to take an interest in the girl next door (Winona Ryder). Most of all, though, he is devoted to his dog Sparky, whose sudden death is a devastating blow.
As a result, inspired by his science teacher’s classroom demonstration of how electricity can seemingly bring a dead frog back to life, Victor heads for his parents’ attic and does the Frankenstein thing, using his mom’s appliances to create zapping, surging, Strickfaden-like laboratory equipment. Then, one dark and stormy night, he raises Sparky’s body up to the heavens for a lightning-assisted jump start — though the real catalyst for his return are the tears Victor sheds when he believes he has failed.
Much of the above, including Vincent’s efforts to hide Sparky from his parents, is covered in Burton’s 1984 “Frankenweenie.” The feature-length treatment necessarily has to offer additional developments and it does so, with moderate effectiveness, by having Victor’s science classmates try to outdo him for a science-fair trophy by reanimating their own dead pets — along with a random packet of Sea Monkeys. Where Sparky was brought back to life by love, however, theirs are products of mere amplified electricity, which turn into monsters (including a gigantic Gamera-like pet turtle) and terrorize the town.
That’s enough to keep things hopping for 87 minutes, but the colossal turtle and the impish Sea Monkeys and some sort of half-bat/half-cat monstrosity, along with a mummified hamster, offer little more than mild diversion. The heart of the story is the unbreakable bond between a boy and his dog, one “crossing the boundaries between life and death,” as Victor’s father says when he learns of it (adding, “it’s very upsetting”).
Upsetting, perhaps, from the parental point of view, but not for Victor and Sparky.~.