Release Date: October 5, 2012
Rating: PG for thematic elements, scary images and action
Run Time: 87 min.
Director: Tim Burton
Actors: Voices of Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder
In 1989, former Disney animator Don Bluth wrote and directed a film that suggested All Dogs Go to Heaven. Twenty-three years later, Bluth's former studio has given director Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd) a chance to tell his own tale of animal afterlife with Frankenweenie, the story of a boy, his canine best friend, and the lengths he’ll go to maintain that relationship with unanticipated results.
It’s a strange animated tale—a remake of a live-action short film Burton directed before he became a major studio filmmaker—that doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of animation or storytelling, but which has its share of amusing moments. However, it’s too dark thematically, and at times frightening, for young children.
Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan, Charlie St. Cloud) lives with his loving parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) in the town of New Holland (known for "modest homes at modest prices"). He spends his days surrounded by strange classmates and under the tutelage of a spooky science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau, The Majestic), who has a deep passion for his subject.
Victor, no social butterfly, is closest to his pet dog, Sparky. When a tragic accident ends Sparky’s life, Victor is crushed. But a class demonstration by Mr. Rzykruski showing that dead animal limbs can still respond to electric current gives Victor an idea. Soon he’s setting up a contraption in the family attic that, with the help of a thunderstorm and a well-placed lightning strike, returns Sparky to life, chipper despite some stitches.
Victor’s joy at their reunion is tempered by his need to hide the resurrected Sparky from parents and neighbors. Sure enough, once a classmate catches on to what’s happened, Victor is forced to share his newfound method of reanimating animals. Soon all manner of dead pets are roaming the town, unleashing destruction.
This being a Burton movie, you can bet that the story’s scariest element won’t be anything supernatural, strange or even undead. Instead, it’s Victor’s friends and neighbors who are portrayed as scary. They can’t abide any semblance of nonconformity. Such attitudes are the great sin in Burton’s stories.
Burton has told several tales of social outcasts and judgmental authority figures (Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland), and Frankenweenie is no exception. But earlier Burton tales have also leaned on cardboard caricatures of religious zealots. This time the villains aren’t primarily religious; they’re just nervous—suspicious and fearful of things they don’t understand (then again, who wouldn’t overreact to giant pets stampeding through the neighborhood?). Nor does Burton go the easy route of pitting all of his story’s young characters against all of the older characters. Some of Victor’s classmates are creepy and unhinged, while some of the adults, particularly Mr. Rzykruski, are heroic in their passion for learning and teaching. A late line in which an adult character confesses to Victor that "sometimes adults don't know what they're talking about" is a sop to younger viewers, but it’s the exception, not the rule, in Frankenweenie.
Burton’s film uses striking black-and-white stop-motion animation, and its use of 3D, if not up to the level of Hugo (a better film for young audiences), is more pleasurable than most 3D fare from Hollywood. In comparison to other Burton works, Frankenweenie also is less concerned with taking cultural shots at people Burton might view as narrow-minded than it is with the lessons that result from youthful exuberance and a lack of foresight.
Landau’s inspired voicing of Mr. Rzykruski and the aforementioned animation style are highlights, as is the character of Mr. Whiskers, a wide-eyed feline with special powers and an owner who doles out matter-of-fact premonitions. It’s all quite odd, and sometimes more unsettling than it is amusing. Although Frankenweenie is creative and visually inspired at times, it’s thematically a dark film that may frighten younger viewers unaccustomed to dealing with the loss of loved ones.
If Burton’s stories about misunderstood outsiders appeal to you, Frankenweenie may be your cup of Halloween tea. It’s certainly far superior to its main competition currently at the multiplex—the tired Hotel Transylvania. If it comes down to a choice between those two titles, you should know it’s Hotel, not Frankenweenie, that’s the dog.
- Language/Profanity: "pee;" a teacher says her students are all "stupid, unenlightened" and that they have "small minds;" a girl sees premonitions in her cat’s waste
- Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: None
- Sex/Nudity: None
- Violence/Crime: A teacher and animals are struck by lightning; Sparky is hit by a car and killed, but we only hear the accident and don’t see it; grave robbing at the pet cemetery; Sparky wags his tail off and scratches his ear off; Sparky drinks water that leaks out through his stitches; a boy falls off a roof; Sparky runs into a mirror; pets restored to life go on a rampage
- Religion: A gravemarker consists of milkbones in the shape of a cross; Victor’s mom tells him that when someone we love dies, they move into our hearts; animal reanimation after death is central to the storyline
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