How often have we seen the story of a boy and his dog? And more importantly, how well do we know the ending? From Old Yeller to Marley & Me, we know that, nine times out of ten, a boy and his dog story will end with the death of the dog. But, in Frankenweenie, the death of the dog is just the beginning.
Frankenweenie, based on the 1984 live action short of the same name, is all about what happens after the death of young Victor Frankenstein’s dog, Sparky. Sparky is Victor’s one friend, the only being he knows who doesn’t judge him for being different or strange. Victor’s father thinks he is too interested in science, and encourages him to play baseball, but during his first game, Sparky chases a home run out into the street and is hit by a car. Unwilling to live with only his memories of Sparky, and inspired by his new science teacher, Victor sets about reanimating his dog. Borrowing household appliances, and sending a kite out the attic window into a lightning storm, Victor creates a rudimentary version of that experiment we know so well, and brings Sparky back to life.
Unfortunately for Victor, this causes all kinds of problems, because no one understands what he has done. His fellow students are jealous, convinced he will win the science fair unless they steal his method and use it to do something bigger. His parents are concerned by his reach and the powers he is tampering with, despite showing compassion for what he is going through. And the townsfolk are angry and terrified of things that are beyond their comprehension. It’s all the sort of typical stuff you see in monster movies, particularly the original Frankenstein films. There are angry villagers, concerned friends and family, and jealous colleagues. But it’s all given a different spin because Victor loves his creation.
Tim Burton has turned his pet project from 1984 (for which he was fired by Disney, who felt the film was too scary for kids) into a sweet story about hanging on to the things you love, which also happens to be a brilliant homage to classic monster movies and also a biting satire of modern, anti-science attitudes. The most interesting scene comes halfway through the film. The new science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau), is a science obsessive, and has inspired the students to compete in the annual science fair. Unfortunately, one student managed to break his arm falling off a roof (while trying to fly with bottle rockets) and when he blames it on the science fair and the new teacher, the parents are furious. A PTA meeting is called and overseen by the Mayor, and everyone calls for the new science teacher to be fired. They stand up and shout things like, “He’s teaching my son things that I don’t even understand!” And when the teacher comes up to the podium to defend himself, he starts by calling the parents “morons”.
It’s not a subtle scene, but it is very biting. Burton’s feelings are fairly obvious, and can be found in many of his other films. The town Victor lives in even closely resembles the suburbia of Edward Scissorhands. Burton has always been a champion of the shunned and misunderstood, and here he offers his most passionate criticism of the ignorant, the fearful and the hateful. Where the original Frankenstein offered a warning about the dangers of science, Frankenweenie offers instead a warning about the dangers of the fear of science. The teacher makes a strong point to Victor about doing science for the right reasons, and it’s clear that the mayhem of the second half of the movie could have been largely avoided by more active parents with a better attitude.
And boy, is there mayhem! Once the other students learn about the revival of Sparky, they set out to bring to life their own deceased pets. What follows is a mashup of references to classic horror. I spotted nods to (or outright copies of) The Wolfman, Dracula, Godzilla, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Mummy, and I’m sure there were more I missed. The entire movie is obviously a sendup to classics like those, from the designs of the characters (many of whom are homages to either the Universal monster movies from the 30’s or the Hammer Films of the 50’s), to the black and white color scheme. It’s obvious that Tim Burton grew up watching these movies, and had a real admiration for their atmosphere and storytelling style. The result is something that’s an interesting mix of classic horror and Tim Burton oddness.
It’s not Burton’s usual thing to surrender his style in favor of someone else’s, but here it works. The movie opens with Victor showing his parents a homemade monster movie he made with Sparky. Sparky (wearing fins and other monster gear) runs around town fighting a rubber bat-creature, while tiny army men get trampled. It’s clear that this is what Tim Burton was like as a kid, living in suburbia, down the street from a cemetery (which he often talks about in interviews), making monster movies on a home camera. Frankenweenie feels a lot like that kid was given a big budget to make his ideal homage in his own personal style. The trick of having actors voice multiple roles (Catherine O’Hara, a Burton favorite, voices Victor’s mother, the gym teacher, and “Weird Girl”, the most overtly Burtonish of the characters) adds to the intimate feeling of a backyard project.
But at its heart, Frankenweenie really is a story of a boy and his dog. Sparky (who vaguely resembles a bull terrier), is a sweet and happy dog, both before and after his death. It’s a reassuring thought that when someone we love dies, they don’t go away for good, even if we wouldn’t necessarily want to bring them back to their dead body. Victor’s actions are motivated by his love for Sparky, and the movie makes a direct link between his motivation and his success. That may sound sappy to some, but the movie is far from overly saccharine. Frankenweenie is fun and funny, a fitting tribute to the horror classics, and a loving tale of a boy and his dog. A love that just happens to carry them through death and back to life again.