Best in show

Best in show

Doggy tale takes on the classics

By Tim Pompey 10/11/2012

Frankenweenie
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Charlie Tahan   
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action   
1 hr. 27 mins.

Why see an animated film about a geeky loner who brings his dead dog back to life? Two words, really. Tim Burton.


Burton plus animation always equals interesting, and that’s particularly true in this case. Frankenweenie takes on two of Burton’s favorite subjects — science and horror movies — with his usual deadpan quirky humor. But this time around, it feels more personal, as if he’s pulling back the curtain on his own young life and letting us peek inside.


Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a young boy who spends most of his time either doing science experiments or watching old horror movies with his parents. He has no friends except for his dog Sparky, who follows him everywhere and loves to play ball.


Mr. Frankenstein (Martin Short) worries about his son being a loner and bribes him to play baseball. When Victor ends up actually knocking the ball out of the park, Sparky decides to give chase and ends up on the wrong side of a car.


Naturally, Victor is heartbroken and inconsolable. That is, until one day in his science class, he learns from his Vincent Price lookalike science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), that electricity can reanimate dead animals. Victor is enthralled and decides to create his own experiment for an upcoming science fair — to bring Sparky back to life. To Victor’s surprise, it works.


But, as with any experiment, there are always unintended consequences; and for Victor, having a live dead Sparky makes his life more complicated and dangerous than he ever imagined. What’s worse, word leaks out among his classmates that Victor can bring dead animals back to life. As he soon learns, sometimes the dead are better left alone.


In contrast to earlier animated films The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, which obsessed over dark subjects like death and loneliness, Burton has managed to create something here that is more lighthearted and energetic.


Of course, when Burton directs animation, his films always have a dark hue, but this time around he’s added some brightness to the mix. There’s a sparkle in the black and white 1950s setting, and his humor seems more upbeat and gentle — think Edward Scissorhands as a comic strip. And if you’re fond of cat poop, well, there’s even a bit of naughtiness waiting for you with its hand outstretched.


In addition, Burton seems to have learned from his previous films that animation needs action. Yes, Frankenweenie does take its time to develop, but there is a lively ending to this film that is worth waiting for. Good science takes patience, and Burton does deliver.


Frankenweenie is also a tribute to Burton’s love of classic horror movies, films such as the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Japanese horror films like Godzilla and Mothra, and more recently Pet Sematary and Gremlins. It’s as if Burton wants to reveal the personal joy he had watching these films, and to encourage the viewer to reimagine and enjoy the thrill of being scared.


But despite all the monster references, Frankenweenie is quite basic. It’s a story about a boy and his dog, and Burton does a wonderful job making Sparky an irresistible force — a funny, lovable mutt who just wants to hang out with Victor and have a little fun. Stitches, bolts and all, he’s the constant that keeps the story jumping forward.


And perhaps this is what really makes Frankenweenie enjoyable. The idea that a boy and his dog in film and in real life are actually best friends forever. For Burton, not even death, darkness, and a whole town full of monsters can ruin that happy thought.

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