Decades ago Tim Burton created a short stop-motion animated film called FRANKENWEENIE, and this tale of a boy who brings his beloved dog back to life became Mr. Burtons entrée into the world of cinema. He revisits this tale in a feature length version, the which he has directed from a screenplay that John August based on Burtons original idea and characters. For a film about death, the hostile competitiveness of boys, and a bevy of townspeople who have their dander up about science, its a surprisingly sweet piece of work, even tender where it needs to be, and wry where it doesnt.
The boy is Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), who lives in the tidy black-and-white suburban enclave of New Holland, a town with frequent thunderstorms and a higher than usual number of people who have been struck by lightning. It could be the result of a curse, which would explain the odd way the residents eyes are both sunken and protruding from the dark circles that surround them. It might also explain why Mr. Whiskers, a neighborhood cat, has the gift of scatological prophecy.
Victor, aside from the portentous surname, is an otherwise normal kid with a nascent talent for filmmaking and a close relationship with his dog and frequent star, Sparky, a potato-shaped mutt with an oversized head that narrows to an improbable acute angle from which dangles an almost prehensile nose. Victor finds it to be a satisfying life, but his parents (Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara) fret that he has no friends, human friends anyway, and that he spends too much time in the attic making movies. That all changes when tragedy strikes, taking Sparky away to doggie heaven, and leaving a grieving Victor behind. Victor, though, being a clever child and inconsolable about losing Sparky, is soon inspired by his science teacher (Martin Landau) during a lecture on electricity, and sets about to do the impossible: bring Sparky back from the dead. The challenge then becomes explaining it to mom and dad, and then to the neighbors who are terrified rather than happy to have Sparky back.
The film giddily references the idioms of Universals classic 1932 FRANKENSTEIN, from the evocative use of expressionist lighting effects, to the re-imaging of Frankensteins lab as created from household appliances, to the anything but subtle resemblance of Victors classmates to familiar icons from the Universal horror classics, a situation that no one sees as odd. Yet, by the time the townsfolk have gathered into a mob with torches to hunt down and destroy Sparky, the references have blossomed into a sincere homage, and not having that particular trope would have been nothing less than a cheat. Not content with that, Burton and company find time to reference a slew of other horror films from the 30s to the present, including a shout-out to the cult fave, BAMBI VERSUS GODZILLA and a putative one to Burtons own EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. And this is only right, because it hearkens back to Burtons earliest films, the ones that dealt gently and warmly with the wonder of love in its many permutations, no matter how macabre the premise.
This is a film that isnt afraid to be ruthless, sentimental, or just plain silly. None of this would work if it ignored the heart of the story, that of a boy and his dog and the enormity of loss when the latter dies. There is no more poignant moment than when the neighbors dog, a poodle groomed into topiary splendor, rolls a ball through her fence and waits for the temporarily deceased Sparky to roll it back. Told without a trace of irony or of cynicism, FRANKENWEENIE celebrates pluck, imagination, and the special bond between child and pet.