Parents have learned the hard way to be skeptical of “boy and his dog” stories. The dog often dies, and audiences tend to take this harder than entire hospitals full of terminally ill orphans. Tim Burton, director of “Beetlejuice,” “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood,” “Mars Attacks!,” “Sleepy Hollow” and most recently, “Dark Shadows,” tends to stand most movie conventions on their heads and does so here. In “Frankenweenie,” the dog dying is the starting off place.
I generally religiously avoid spoilers, but in this case I really think parents of young children should know in advance that it’s okay to promise them a happy ending. This is often a very dark movie, and children may find it less upsetting if they know that going in.
This is an updated version of “Frankenstein,” in which a young, very bright boy, whose name really is Victor Frankenstein (voice performance by Charlie Tahan), resurrects his dead dog with at least some of the consequences you’d probably expect. No one, sadly, actually says “Now Victor, you’ve meddled in matters best left to God. That was very, very wrong.” The neighbors aren’t quite ready for a dog back from the dead, and the villagers do end up with torches (pitchforks, however, are not conspicuously in evidence). Complicating matters, some of Victor’s classmates also start experimenting, and there soon more monsters running around than in a “Power Rangers” marathon.
“Frankenweenie” is a feature film version of a short that Burton made for Disney back in his early days as a young animator. It expands extremely well. This is a well-told, cohesive story that if anything errs on the side of too much emotional content. Any parent that’s ever had to console a young child mourning the death of a pet will tell you it’s a painful experience, and Burton and screenwriter John August (“Dark Shadows,” “Corpse Bride,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Big Fish”) pull no punches. Making matters more poignant, Victor has no friends other than his beloved dog, Sparky.
That being said, this is also a wickedly funny movie with some delightful homages to the classic, black and white horror movies of Burton’s youth. Many of the supporting characters—Edgar “E” Gore (voice performance by Atticus Shaffer) channels Peter Lorre and Dwight Frye, the Eastern European science teacher, Mr.Rzykruski (voice performance by Martin Landau) looks like Vincent Price, Nassor (voice performance by Martin Short) who looks and sounds like Boris Karloff’s monster, seem to have slipped out of old horror movies.
Ironically, the one actual clip of a vintage horror movie we actually see, and it is in black and white, is of Christopher Lee and Melissa Stribling from Hammer’s “Horror of Dracula,” a movie actually made in color. Sir Christopher is a multi-movie Burton regular, which no doubt influenced the choice. Although Johnny Depp, Burton’s usual leading man, is not in evidence in “Frankenweenie,” the voice cast does include four other Burton veterans, including Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short, who both voice multiple roles, including Victor’s clueless parents, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder.
“Frankenweenie” was made with stop motion animation, one of the oldest techniques in filmmaking, from beginning to end. No CG animation was used, although there are CGI special effects, particularly involving lightning, which needless to say is a critical element of this story. The animation is remarkably smooth, and the black and white photography by Peter Sorg is positively lustrous, with pure whites and blacks at the extreme ends of the gray scale. The photography, combined with Rick Heinrich’s production design, and Tim Browning’s art direction, conjures a mix of modern suburban with Universal Pictures gothic, calling to mind nothing so much as Charles Addams’ cartoons. Burton was announced back in 2010 to direct an animated film based on Addams’ cartoons, although the movie has yet to materialize. Danny Elfman’s music is not exactly outside-the-box, but thoroughly appropriate and never intrusive. The 3D is excellent. Some scary stuff does fly at the camera.
Ultimately, August and Burton opt out of the usual “Frankenstein” theme, which is that there are some things best left to God in which man shouldn’t meddle. The end result is humorous, but does force of issue that in the real world you can’t actually hook your dead pet up to a jumper cable and expect a happy ending.