Walt Disney Studios’ production notes for Frankenweenie describe it as a heartwarming tale about a boy and his dog. That’s true, but it just so happens that the boy’s name is Victor Frankenstein and his beloved pet is, shall we say, reanimated.
Just beneath the Disney logo and the movie’s title another name lets moviegoers know what’s up with Frankenweenie: Tim Burton.
The cinematic mad scientist behind such stylishly macabre movies as The Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride and Beetlejuice, Burton expands his 1984 live-action short, Frankenweenie, to a feature-length animated film. It’s plenty cute and a lot of fun.
Like The Nightmare Before Christmas before it, the director uses the painstaking stop-motion animation technique to make Frankenweenie live again. It’s a marvelously rendered and told tale of young Victor’s devotion to Sparky, the loving dog whose canine enthusiasm for fetching balls leads to tragedy.
Burton filmed Frankenweenie in silvery black and white, a homage to the Universal Studios horror classic of the 1930s and ’40s that the 54-year-old director and his monster-loving peers grew up watching on TV. Burton and screenwriter John August also fill the movie with affectionate references to Universal’s top-tier monsters, Frankenstein, the mummy, the wolf man and Dracula.
In Frankenweenie, Burton relocates the Frankenstein story to a stereotypically bland, 1960s American suburb. The scientifically minded Victor attends New Holland Elementary School. Despite Victor’s science-nerd status, he’s the most normal kid in a class that includes Edgar “E.” Gore and Elsa Van Helsing.
Having no human companions, Victor gets by happily with his four-legged best friend. He enjoys directing Sparky, a lively little white dog with the pointed face, in the role of hero in home movies.
A boy who doesn’t like sports, Victor joins a baseball team, probably because his parents want him to spend time out of the attic that he’s converted into a film studio. But his parents’ good intentions produce horrible consequences. If Victor hadn’t been compelled to play baseball, Sparky wouldn’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The poor doggy is laid to rest in New Holland Pet Cemetery amidst tombstones for Fluffy the cat, Shelley the turtle and a dog named Rover whose grave is marked by fire hydrant.
Victor’s mother offers words of consolation to her grieving boy. “If we could bring him back, we would,” she says.
The next day at school, Victor’s mad scientist-looking science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, applies an electrical charge to a dead frog’s legs. The inert amphibian’s legs spring forward. “Even after death the wiring remains,” Mr. Rzykruski says. A lightning bolt of inspiration strikes Victor.
Mr. Rzykruski is another example of Frankenweenie’s classic horror references. The foreign-accented science teacher (Martin Landau) is the director’s homage to Vincent Price, star of House of Wax, The Mad Magician and many more. Burton cast Price in the late actor’s final film, 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, as the Inventor. The Price-inspired Mr. Rzykruski gives Frankenweenie’s big speech.
Burton and his team, including animators, art-department modelers and a huge puppet crew, make the resurrected Frankenweenie a charming, funny, touching blend of old-fashioned boy-and-his-dog storytelling and affectionately re-generated horror. It takes frontrunner status in next year’s Oscar run for best animated feature.
Copyright © 2011, Capital City Press LLC • 7290 Bluebonnet Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70810 • All Rights Reserved