Frankenweenie; it’s the quintessential Tim Burton movie, the movie he was born to make. If you’ve watched a lot of Mr. Burton’s flicks over the years, Frankenweenie will not be new to you. You’ll notice a lot of his cinematic devices and plot devices too. Black and white like Ed Wood? Check! The merging of two creatures to make one weird monster like Mars Attacks!? Check! Stop motion like The Nightmare Before Christmas? Check! The climax in an abandoned, burning down windmill like Sleepy Hollow? Check! Hell, he even recycled the main character’s name from The Corpse Bride. Frankenweenie may not be Mr. Burton’s best work, but if you like his stuff, this is like his greatest hits reel and it won’t disappoint.
Frankenweenie revolves around Victor Frankenstein, a middle school loner who prefers the company of his dog, Sparky to that of any of his classmates. Sparky stars in elaborate 8mm sci-fi flicks produced by Victor. I will assume that part is autobiographical. Sparky, unfortunately meets his untimely demise early in the film after a series of unfortunate coincidences brought about when Victor’s father forces him to try out playing baseball with a neighborhood team. Victor, inspired by his new science teacher, decides to build a machine to bring Sparky back to life. He succeeds, but has to keep his experiment a secret. Sparky, however has other plans and soon word gets out that Victor has created a machine that can bring dead pets back to life. All the neighborhood kids try to replicate Victor’s experiment with their own dearly departed pets, with varying degrees of success, and soon all hell breaks loose.
The film is a lot of fun to look at; black and white with that classic Burton look. It is supposed to be modern-day, but looks more like an idealized 1950s throw back, complete with closed-minded villagers and references to all the classic sci-fi and horror flicks from Frankenstein to Godzilla and everything in between. The film is, however, most memorable when it focuses on the relationship between Victor and Sparky. That’s when you really see the heart of the film and, I’ll admit, I got a little choked up when Victor lost Sparky. If you’ve ever had a four-legged fur friend, and certainly if you’ve ever lost one, Victor’s loss hits close to home. And his desire to bring his best friend back is terribly understandable. That being said, having a dead dog running around is, as Victor’s dad says, upsetting. But Burton makes some larger points too. Exploring American disdain for both science and creativity and exploding the idea that grown ups are always right. Probably one of the funniest scenes features a, let’s say, Eastern European science teacher trying to defend his job before a room full of slack-jawed parents by explaining that he wants to crack open children’s heads to get at their brains. He is, of course, saying everything all wrong, but also explaining with absolute clarity the problem with this town full of mindless followers more concerned with their lawns that their kids.
In the end, as I said, Frankenweenie doesn’t disappoint. It’s touching with just the right amount of fantastical adventure. it looks cool and it’s the kind of movie you could watch a couple of times to just to pick up all the other movie references. This is a strange movie season; how often do you get two stop-motion movies featuring loner middle schoolers, the supernatural, and nerds saving the day? It is truly a gluttony of riches. And while Frankenweenie is certainly a fun and entertaining way to while aware a lazy Saturday afternoon, if you have to pick only one stop-motion zombie flick for the year, you should make it ParaNorman. Frankenweenie, while totally enjoyable, doesn’t quite measure up to the hilarity and universal truths explored in ParaNorman, but I really hope you don’t have to pick and you can see them both. When we go so long starved for great stop-motion supernatural animation, why look a gift horse in the mouth? Why not enjoy them both! They are certainly worth it.