Frankenweenie is a heartwarming tale about a boy and his dog. After unexpectedly losing his beloved dog Sparky, young Victor harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life-with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor's fellow students, teachers and the entire town all learn that getting a new "leash on life" can be monstrous.
In 1984, a year before he would make his feature film directorial debut with Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Tim Burton completed a short live-action film for Disney called "Frankenweenie." Burton's vision for the world of "Frankenweenie" was always intended to take place in a feature film, and that day has arrived. Frankenweenie (2012) is Tim Burton's first full-length animated film for Disney, and it embodies the style of an animated Burton film, in the same vein of Corpse Bride and A Nightmare Before Christmas. There is a drastic difference between his previous animated features with Frankenweenie, it is a much more lighthearted film, favoring comedy over dark uneasiness.
Frankenweenie is the story of Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) and his dog Sparky. It is, at the simplest level, a story about a boy and his dog and the bond they share. When Sparky is killed in a car accident Victor is heartbroken and decides to use his scientific prowess to bring Sparky back to life. Victor is a brilliant young scientist and moviemaker, a 10 year-old boy who can make an experiment work out of everyday household items or create an entire monster out of the same. When Mrs. Frankenstein, Victor's mother, cannot find something in the kitchen she knows to go look in Victor's attic laboratory. Victor succeeds in bringing Sparky back to life, creating a frankenstein-like dog who is almost just as Sparky was in real life, aside from the stitching and a few minor cosmetic abnormalities--his tale does have trouble staying on, as do his ears. In a true homage to the great Frankenstein, Victor's experiment involves lightning and a pulley system to hoist the lifeless body of Sparky into the open air to be charged by the electrical current. Fear not, Sparky's dead body is never seen; everything is done with a child's disposition in mind and the feeling is more of exciting anticipation than that of a creepy mad scientist gone awry with his thinking. Victor is a sweet and loving boy who only wants his one friend back so he may be happy again. The pain Victor feels is not lost on a viewer, especially if one has ever lost a favored pet or friend.
Bringing Sparky back to life only begins Victor's journey, as his experiment is to be kept secret until a schoolmate, Edgar "E" Gore (Atticus Shaffer), discovers it accidentally. What transpires next is a series of events that have Victor's classmates clambering to experiment as he has with their life-lost pets, with disastrous results. Only Victor can save his town of New Holland, and keeping Sparky, the only animal to be come back to life the "right" way with heart and mind involved, will be a choice Victor must make.
It is the enormous amount of love a viewer feels while watching Frankenweenie because of the relationship between Victor and Sparky that makes it incredibly enjoyable. The comedic moments are present constantly as well, much of them playing into the famous monster motif as the film is an homage to the great horror movies and characters from as early as the 1930s. An easy favorite will be reanimated Sparky's body's reaction to drinking water--Sparky could have been sewn a bit tighter. All of the characters are unique, even with them resembling those who have come before, and the added love story between Sparky and Victor's classmate Elsa Van Helsing's (Winona Ryder) dog Persephone is constructed so well it could be its own successful silent short film. Sparky and Persephone definitely steal the show more than once with nothing more than a ball for a prop. There is nothing missing from Frankenweenie's story, it has everything you could ask for from a love story between a boy and his dog. It is the choices made during the final moments that change your feeling towards the film, and it is saddening.
The initial instinct may be that a Tim Burton animated picture is going to be dark and ominous, and then you watch Frankenweenie and realize the black-and-white visuals are merely a color choice and the movie brings a smile to your face and warmth to your soul. Unfortunately this does end as Frankenweenie falls prey to a common Burton attribute at the end of the movie. After the first two acts being lighthearted, comedic, and full of warmth and love, the third act, featuring the climax of the film, takes a drastic turn towards the violent in certain scenes. The terror would not be suitable for young children; one scene in particular does not cut away from the death of an animal and it is shocking to witness and wholly unexpected to be seen on-camera. The film recovers from the unforeseen violence, and the ending is wonderfully created in Burton's vision more so for adults who have seen the famous monster movies than children who have yet to experience, for example, Godzilla (1954). Frankenweenie is a terrific movie, with plenty of positive themes and lessons for children to be learned or reiterated. It's only downfall is going one step too far with the climactic violence and forgetting its target audience is in fact a child. It is hard to look past the sour taste the ending leaves in your mouth but as a whole it has more favorable attributes that outweigh the drastic change in tone you find during the climax.
From merely a frame of film it is possible to know you are seeing a Tim Burton animated feature. The characters always have dark, heavy lids, and saucer eyes with a mere hint of a goth interpretation. The production design has a tendency to be unique in his films, even if he does prefer many of the same types of locations and heavy handed lighting with stark blacks and whites mingled with vibrant colors for effect.
Frankenweenie is the first animated stop-motion feature film ever to be made completely in black and white, and the use of black, white, and every gray in between thanks to variations on lighting and the painting of the sets and character molds creates an atmospheric tension for the comedy-horror feature. What Frankenweenie does not have is an original conceptual design; the film's sets look far too similar to Burton's Edward Scissorhands. The small town of New Holland is introduced to the viewer with almost the exact same shot, angle, and with the same suburban planned housing block with picture perfect lawns and houses as in Edward Scissorhands. The only relatively creative part in terms of production design in Frankenweenie is Victor's attic laboratory. Seeing how he makes a blender, and a host of other household items, come to life in his experiments is visually stunning. For Frankenweenie it seems Burton's design team, headed by Rick Heinrichs, took far too much of a cue from his previous work when building the sets. Luckily, the mold makers, painters, and animators, all did an exceptional job at creating original and memorable characters so the lackluster production design can be forgiven.
Animation, Children and Family
October 5, 2012