Let’s face it – losing a beloved pet is one of the harder things in life to deal with. The event is inevitable, unless you’re low on years yourself, but when it happens it still feels like a terrible surprise. If you’re a parent, you’ve also got to deal with the repercussions on your child. Such is the plight of Victor in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie after he loses his precious Sparky in a car accident.
This full-length film is a re-envisioning of Burton’s short film from 1984. That one was shot down by Disney for being too scary for children, so this time Burton goes for the stop-frame animation of The Nightmare Before Christmas or Corpse Bride to give Frankenweenie a bit less horror.
Still, the black-and-white cinematography is a hearty gesture to Frankenweenie‘s forefather Frankenstein, and the multiple references to Mary Shelley’s novel (a turtle named Shelley, a student named Edgar “E” Gore) might fly over the heads of younger generations. But the emotional resonance of losing a pet and the attempts to get it back land for those of all ages.
This has a lot to do with Burton’s focus on Sparky before and after the accident. Frankenweenie doesn’t jump right into the loss of the dog; instead, it follows Sparky in life – his interactions with others, his selfless attitude, and even his love interest on the other side of the fence, Persephone. Sparky is a character just as the other humans of Frankenweenie are, and like those strange denizens, the dog has a spark of his own.
Burton keeps things moving throughout the first act, but Frankenweenie does tend to stagnate in its second once Edgar finds out the Victor has brought Sparky back to life. From here, hijinks ensue where others find out about Victor’s abilities and try to do the same. There’s a lot of talk about the effects of science on the ignorant, but a cohesive plot is missing until the lost pets of others begin to walk the earth again.
That’s where things get much more interesting again. A bat-cat, a gigantic turtle, a mummy hamster, and more populate and destroy the town, and it’s up to Sparky to save the day as he does in Victor’s movie at the beginning of Frankenweenie. It’s interesting the conclusions that Burton draws as the film concludes; is Burton saying that perhaps it’s okay to bring back the dead, if you can? That maybe letting go doesn’t have to be the only choice in death? In a way, that’s a morbid thought to teach children when the happy ending of the movie cannot be reflected in reality. But it fills a void in the film, and also seems to indicate that science doesn’t have to be the scary, magical thing that people who don’t understand it think it is.
While the film isn’t entirely flawless, it is one of the most entertaining of Burton’s films. It’s got a fascinating morbidity to it, populated with strange characters that both disgust and interest – best of all is Weird Girl, who apparently cannot close her giant eyes. It’s unclear exactly what point Frankenweenie tries to make about death, but maybe that’s part of the mystery – sometimes things work out because they can, for reasons we can’t explain. Call it science.