Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie, a feature-length remake of his 1984 live-action short, is likely to ignite debate over how appropriate it is for younger audiences, it’s PG rating notwithstanding. Sitting in the screening room, watching this triumph of black and white cinematography and stop motion animation through a pair of 3D glasses, I felt a conflict brewing within me. On the one hand, I immediately picked up on and responded to Burton’s visual flair; not since The Nightmare Before Christmas has a movie so uncannily captured the essence of his artwork and character sketches, their disproportionate bodies and large heads punctuated by wide, round eyes surrounded by dark circles. Pay close attention to a character appropriately named Weird Girl. Anyone familiar with Burton’s published works or his line of toy figurines will immediately notice that she bears more than a passing resemblance to Staring Girl.
On the other hand, significant portions of the story are clearly not intended for children. Let me make it perfectly clear that I’m not referring to the general plot, in which a boy scientist brings his dog back from the dead in a send-up of Frankenstein; setting aside the fantasy of such a scenario, Burton shows tremendous understanding and respect in the way he depicts the emotional turmoil of a child who has lost a pet. What I am referring to is a heavy-handed subtext, namely the façade of suburbia and the bigotry and ignorance that hides behind it. Burton made a statement about this in Edward Scissorhands, albeit in a way that was more simplistic and less confrontational; the suburbanites turned against the title character only for looking and behaving differently. This time around, his social statement centers on the reluctance to accept science. As we all know, science is an infinitely more didactic and controversial subject.
In the film, whiz kid Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) uses his newfound knowledge of electricity to bring back from the dead his beloved dog Sparky, who met his end after being hit by a car. Try as Victor might to keep Sparky hidden from view, the scheming hunchbacked kid Edgar “E” Gore (voiced by Atticus Shaffer) catches wind of the dog’s resurrection and blackmails Victor into divulging his secrets. Edgar inevitably blabs to a small group of classmates, all of whom are greedily looking for a way to place first in their school’s upcoming science fair. One is an intimidating British kid with a very pronounced lisp. Another is a Japanese boy who replaces his L’s with R’s and in due time creates a gigantic Godzilla monster from the corpse of his turtle. I leave it to you to decide whether this is unintentionally offensive or a calculated display of satire.
Part of the film’s appeal is in the way it pays homage to the creature features and monster movies of old. The opening scene, taken almost verbatim from the original short, is a Super 8 home movie shot by Victor of a beast attacking a city made of cardboard boxes. Toy soldiers and dolls stand in as horrified victims while a costumed Sparky stars as the beast. They even work in a 3D joke, which I personally found amusing. There’s also a quietly effective scene in which Victor’s ‘50s-sitcom parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) look at real footage of Horror of Dracula on their TV set. And then there are the numerous references to James Whale’s Frankenstein; Sparky is resurrected when his body is hoisted up through a skylight during a thunderstorm, and all manner of devices spew electric bolts down in Victor’s makeshift attic laboratory. The climax even takes place in a windmill that has caught fire.
To be sure, there’s also a mob, which blames Victor for his evil use of science and want to destroy Sparky for something he didn’t do. These are the same people that successfully got the immigrant science teacher, the very intense Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), fired for corrupting the minds of their children. The mob is led by the town mayor, Mr. Burgemeister (also voiced by Short), who happens to be Victor’s next-door neighbor. The press kit describes him as “a crotchety fuss-bucket,” but I don’t think this adequately describes just how unpleasant he is. His suspicions of Victor border on the paranoid. He speaks in a menacing growl. He’s rotund and imposing. He’s genuinely frightening, a man that, despite being an animated character, I fully believed capable of physical and verbal abuse.
If you think I’m being dramatic, consider his niece, Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder), who has been placed in his care. Withdrawn, mousy, and somber, she eventually confesses to her uncle that she would welcome death. Unlike the character of Lydia Deetz, who possessed a dry wit and was essentially just rebelling against her pretentious stepmother, you truly believe that Elsa has had her spirit broken. Of course, it’s through her that Sparky gets a female companion. This would be a black French poodle who, thanks to a literally shocking nose-to-nose kiss, gains white streaks of fur above her head a la the Bride of Frankenstein. In watching Frankenweenie, you will get two movies for the price of one – a stylish animated family film and a dark adult-oriented comedy. Is this a successful combination? I don’t know. But I give it credit for trying, and I admire the skill that went into it.