I have no empirical evidence to support this statement but I have a distinct feeling that filmmaker Tim Burton has an extremely strange childhood. The supposition is based on my many years of following his career and as an enthusiastic fan. His films are always disturbing, dark and delightful. His forte is the seamless blend of childhood nostalgia and a discernible fascination with the dead. Whether it is a skeleton major of a town in a perpetual state of Halloween or a not quite fully deceased bride Burton has placed his unique spin of a series of movies that quickly become timeless classics. The latest opus in his oeuvre is the deliciously disturbing story of a boy and his dog, ‘Frankenweenie’. There is nothing that epitomizes Americana like of a young boy and his dedicated canine companion. That is how Norman Rockwell painted the scene or the producers of ‘Lassie’ depict this most stalwart type of story; the backbone of our nation. That is until Tim Burton decided to revisit the theme. You see, in his masterful hands and cutting edge 3D cinematic and animation techniques you wind up with a boy and his recently dead dog. Almost every one of us has experienced the loss of a beloved pet. We have a backyard funeral, cry it out and turn to our parents for emotional support. This is definitely not the progression of these common events in the bizarre universe created by Mr. Burton. ‘Frankenweenie’, fits perfectly into his stylistic methods and certain to bring a lot of entertainment to his legion of fans. From a technological perspective this film is special. It was the first black and white movie filmed in IMAX 3D and is a stop action Burton movie that eschews a musical component. Although produced by the Walt Disney Studio this certainly isn’t the type of animated film most of us grew up associating the House of Mouse with. Combining horror, science fiction, comedy and fantasy isn’t an easy task but then again Tim Burton has never trod the well-traveled road in cinema.
Despite his meager number of years Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is a burgeoning scientist and novice auteur. He resides in New Holland, a typical American small town with his father (voiced by Martin Short) and mother (voiced by Catherine O'Hara). His very best friend in the whole world is his pet dog, Sparky. Victor is an introverted boy content with his studies but father feel he needs a more rounded childhood. He encourages Victor to try out for baseball and the boy not only is selected for the team he hits a home run. A dark cloud soon eclipses the victory when Sparky instinctively chases the ball into traffic and is killed by an oncoming car. Not long before his favorite teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) had a demonstration in science class of galvanic response. He elicited movement from a dead frog by inducing an electric spark. The imaginative mind of the boy takes this experiment to its logical extreme; revive Sparky with an electrical discharge.
Victor disinters his beloved pet bringing him to his laboratory in the attic. A convenient storm provides the requisite lightening to bring Sparky back to life. The newly reanimated dog sees a cat and does what comes natural to his species, chases it out of the house, Sparky is spotted by a classmate of Victor’s, Edgar Gore (voiced by Atticus Shaffer). The hunchbacked E. Gore blackmails Victor demanding his secret to bring the dead back to life. Together they set about to reanimate other dead pets; their attempts on a goldfish worked but it turned invisible due to a miscalculation. Victor is certain that bringing dead pets back to life will make him a shoe in for winning the upcoming science fair. Unfortunately most of his experiments result in rather bizarre, unanticipated results including a vampire cat, a were-rat and a mummified hamster. When the treatment is applied to a batch of sea monkeys they mutate into monsters. The grownups in the audience are certain to recognize the staples in the horror movie creature features we watched as kids. Including in this group of creatures are representatives of the classic monsters from the early Universal Studio films; Frankenstein, Dracula, Wolf-Man, the Invisible man and the Mummy. These created the foundation for the perennial horror favorite, the monster movie. There is even homage paid to a certain infamous windmill and the iconic coiffure of Elsa Lanchester.
This undeniable connection to the movie that ignited a deep seated enjoyment of scary films in our generation is just the foundation for this movie. It uses this aspect to keep the parents firmly seated, open to sharing the enjoyment with their kids. My daughter is past the stage of kid in the audience but she loves these darkly twisted films. For us this is the perfect family movie. Even if your taste does not run towards the macabre you are going to love this film for the sheer exuberance it projects and the technical wonderment Burton brings to the screen. Although the art of stop action photography is not recent Tim Burton has guided it into the new millennium. The process has remained the same since the hay day in the fifties with the undisputed master of the craft, Ray Harryhausen. Three dimensional figures are skillfully sculpted and moved by a miniscule amount for each frame. For a feature length movie like this one running 87 minutes that is over 7.5 million frames meticulously setup, photographed and pieced together to create the final product. When you toss the added requirements of 3D into the process you have one of the most time consuming and arduous methodologies in the artistic expression of cinema.
What makes the subjects of this film stand up so exceptionally well is how Button infuses a deep pathos into his subjects. As terrible as the premise may be; death of a pet, reanimation and playing with unnatural forces comes directly from the original source material by Mary Shelly. What Burton captures here is the underlying sense of humanity is deeply rooted invoking an empathic response in the audience. in a fashion similar to how Boris Karloff instilled a humanity into his interpretation of the creature Burton creates a mélange of horror and heartwarming emotional intensity into this movie. The excellent 3D graphics are the icing on this cake; perfectly rendered and able to highlight the emotional core of the story. They reinforce the tale but the genius lies in every one on the 7,5 million frames of the film.