(2012) Animated Feature (Disney) Starring the voices of Winona Ryder, Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau, Charlie Tahan, Atticus Shaffer, Robert Capron, Conchatta Ferrell, James Hiroyuki Liao, Tom Kenny, Christopher Lee, Frank Welker, Dee Bradley Baker. Directed by Tim Burton
The bond between a boy and his dog is something that ranks right up there with the closest relationships that we know of. Lonely boys, in particular, seem to become more attached to their canine companions. It is that feeling of unconditional love that is reciprocated; the dog can do no wrong, whether they bark at passing cars or leave an indiscretion on the living room carpet. These same boys as men will rarely love anyone or anything as much as they love their childhood dog.
Victor Frankenstein (Tahan) lives in the quiet suburban neighborhood of New Holland with his parents (O’Hara, Short). He is a smart kid, a science whiz who is something of a loner. He doesn’t have friends and doesn’t want any. In fact, he doesn’t need any – he has Sparky (Welker), an affectionate dog of indeterminate breed. Sparky goes everywhere with him, although he sometimes annoys the neighbor, the Mayor (Short again) by tearing up the flowers and marking the territory (ahem).
The mayor’s niece – Elsa (Ryder) is staying with her uncle, along with her poodle Persephone (Baker). She and Victor are in science class together at school, being taught by the somewhat haughty Mr. Rzykruski (Landau), a sinister looking soul but one who loves science with a passion. Along with Victor and Elsa are Edgar (Shaffer), an unlovely hunchback who can’t keep a secret; Bob (Capron) a rotund young boy with an easy-going nature and an insatiable appetite and Toshiaki (Liao), an Asian boy with ambitions of winning the science fair that go well on the road to obsession.
Tragedy strikes however when Sparky is killed. Victor is inconsolable, despite his mom and dad’s best efforts to cheer him up. He misses his dog terribly – his only companion. Victor watches a film that he made with his dog over and over again, unable to let go. Then, a lecture by Mr. Rzykruski that involved stimulating a dead frog’s muscle with an electric charge suddenly turns a light on in Victor’s brain. He would bring Sparky back to life.
He digs up his beloved dog from the local pet cemetery and turns his attic into a lab using whatever he can scrounge from around the house. There are lightning storms in New Holland regularly and that very night he uses one to revivify Sparky, whom he’s had to patch together with sewing thread. Still, the dog seems no worse for the wear (with an occasional ear or tail being thrown off when he gets excited) but Victor realizes most people will fear what he’s done and certainly nobody will understand it. Sparky needs to remain hidden but there’s not much chance a dog as rambunctious as Sparky will remain cooped up in an attic for long.
This is more or less an “old home week” kind of project for Burton. Way back in 1984 he did a “Frankenweenie” short which this comes from, albeit far more involved and expanded upon both from a cinematic and story standpoint. This is stop-motion animation just like The Corpse Bride was and has a similar spindly pipe cleaner leg oversized head saucer eyes kind of look to it, kind of like a gringo Day of the Dead look.
SCTV vets Short and O’Hara work nicely together as the parents while Tahan, whose Victor resembles Burton facially (and is likely meant to be his surrogate) doesn’t overplay, which sometimes happens in animated features. Landau does an excellent job with the science teacher who looks like a kind of cadaverous Vincent Price. The Eastern European accent also brings Bela Lugosi to mind.
There is a definite love letter to classic horror films here (as mentioned below), with appearances by Frankenstein, Dracula, Ghiderah and the Mummy. There is also a good deal of heart here, particularly when it comes to a boy’s devotion to his dog. I cried twice during the movie (no points if you can guess when) which takes some doing. There is also a certain amount of quirkiness that you would come to expect with a Tim Burton movie – his trademark, I’d say. It’s different from indie quirkiness in that it has a more ’50s suburban feel as interpreted by Roger Corman.
While the movie seems to have a difficult time deciding what era it’s in (at one point there are references to home computers but the look and feel is definitely more 1950s Americana), there is no doubt that this is a movie that knows its own roots and sticks to them. I hadn’t expected much from Frankenweenie after Burton’s misfire with Dark Shadows earlier this year but I should have known better. This is certainly one of his best movies in the last 10 years.
REASONS TO GO: Hits some powerful emotions. A return to form for Burton after his last misstep.
REASONS TO STAY: A little mannered in places. Some era confusion.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some images that might be a tad scary for younger tots. The theme of losing a beloved pet might also be too much for sensitive kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Tim Burton-directed movie not to feature Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter since 1996.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100. The reviews have been strong.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Nightmare Before Christmas
CLASSIC HORROR LOVERS: There are homages throughout the film to various classic horror films and genres from the obvious Frankenstein to Vincent Price, the Toho giant lizard films, gothic Hammer horror and Gremlins among others.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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