Fantastic Fest Review: Frankenweenie


Kids, one day your dog is going to die. It’s nice to have a fantasy like Frankenweenie but the fact is one day you’re going to have to face mortality, and it may be while you’re still a child. Boy, it’s nice to have Tim Burton back.

In the town of New Holland, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a science geek whose best friend is his dog Sparky. Victor learns about electricity from his teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), so when Sparky gets hit by a car, Victor brings him back Frankenstein style.

The screenplay by John August is a brilliant elaboration on Burton’s original short, and so captures the vibe of early Burton movies that it’s like Burton found his soul mate. Of course you can tell where Burton’s allegiances lie in his portrayal of each character.

Victor as the social outcast is clearly the superior character. Adults are not to be trusted. Victor’s misguided father (Martin Short) is actually the cause of Sparky’s death. Forcing his son to play baseball to fit in, Victor hits a fly ball that Sparky chases into the street. And dad never even apologizes. When he’s consoling his son he never thinks to say, “Yeah, maybe it’s okay if you don’t play baseball. Just do your own thing.”

Frankenweenie has a beautiful sense of bittersweet fantasy. Victor gets Sparky back but only to have to protect him from all the persecutors who either fear or want to exploit a re-animated dog. His school friend Edgar (a brilliant Atticus Shaffer) corrupts the experiment in a subplot that expands the Frankenstein themes beautifully. Adults of course fear Sparky.

The fascist parents of New Holland want to outlaw science. With science as the niche in which Victor excels, let alone the instrument of his reunion with Sparky, the heroes have to fight just to practice natural studies. Just like it was a fight for Burton to play with his monsters with everyone pressuring him to do something more “normal,” I’m assuming. It just oozes personal metaphor. Mr. Rzykruski gives a fantastic speech to the parents that I’m sure some audience members need to hear. At least it can empower their children.

Also this is a funny movie. There are plenty of puns in the characters names (hello, Edgar?) and in the backgrounds. Be sure to check out the tombstones in the pet cemetery. The animation is full of slapstick and sight gags, and the climax of the film is pure joy for monster lovers.

The stop motion animation itself is expert storytelling. So much of the film unfolds wordlessly, or with animals, just using the movement to show the story. The re-animation sequence has a stunning dramatic build, and sometimes you can actually see the changes from frame to frame on a close-up of the wide eyed Mr. Whiskers. They even pull off a zolly shot in stop motion.

The science of Frankenweenie is a bit inconsistent. The idea that Sparky needs to be recharged never really comes up again, and don’t ask me why future experiments turn out the way they do. It’s really not about the science though. It’s about the themes each animal and each experiment represents. I’d rather have a movie filled with themes than rules.

Frankenweenie is such a beautiful movie. It’s beautiful to watch in animation, it’s a beautiful story and it serves up profound themes in a family friendly way. Actually, it will be quite threatening to some grown-ups, but those are the best kinds of kids movies.