After unexpectedly losing his beloved dog Sparky, young Victor harnesses the power of science to bring his best friend back to life—with just a few minor adjustments. He tries to hide his home-sewn creation, but when Sparky gets out, Victor’s fellow students, teachers and the entire town all learn that getting a new 'leash on life' can be monstrous.
Tim Burton and his world-class stop-motion animators have fashioned a horror movie that's anything but horrible.
The level of craftsmanship on display is sky high
A loving homage to everything from Frankenstein to Godzilla by way of cosy American suburbia circa the analogue era, Frankenweenie makes superb use of black-and-white and shades of grey, thoughtful lighting and an equally thoughtful musical score (by longtime Burton co-conspirator Danny Elfman) to tell the touching tale of a boy, Victor, and his love for his dog, Sparky.
How can we tell this is a Tim Burton movie? Well, for starters, in previous movies where a pet dies, the pet has a marked tendency to remain dead.
Victor (last name: Frankenstein), a smart young lad with a scientific bent, has no friends except his adorable, energetic dog. But Victor isn't lonely. It's the 1970s and there's lots to keep a boy busy.
He's a good student who especially likes his exotic new science teacher, voiced with splendid Eastern European inflections by Martin Landau: "Science isn't good or bad, Victor, but it can be used both ways." Victor devotes his leisure time to making Super-8 monster movies starring his toys, his mom's kitchen appliances and Sparky. In fact, the early scene in which Victor and his mom and dad and Sparky settle in for a family viewing of Victor's latest Super-8 opus is alone worth the price of admission.
Victor is planning a project for the school science fair when his beloved dog is killed in an accident. Sparky is buried in a nice spot on a hill in New Holland's rather lavish pet cemetery. Victor is inconsolable although his kind and wholesome mom and dad help him cope with the momentous loss as best they can. "If we could bring him back, we would," they say in comforting tones.
When the science teacher shows his class that electricity can stimulate a dead frog's muscles, making the amphibious corpse seem alive, Victor is inspired to try and use Nature's jumper cables to re-animate Sparky. As luck would have it, Victor's house has a large attic with a skylight and there's an electrical storm in New Holland almost every night.
Sparky, who hardly even had a chance to start decomposing, comes back to life, adorned with stitches and a tell-tale bolt in his neck. Rather than show off what he has accomplished, Victor figures it's wiser to keep Sparky hidden.
But if that plan succeeded, there wouldn't be a movie.
An animated feature in black-and-white is a rarity, quite possibly unique. In addition to being incredibly beautiful to watch when carried out by gifted animators, stop-action animation mirrors the original Dr. Frankenstein's mission in a way by bringing to 'life’ inert elements.
The level of craftsmanship on display is sky high. Sparky is adorable both before and after his fatal accident and if he has an inconvenient tendency to shed the occasional sewn-together body part, so be it. (Whatever other portions of his anatomy are the worse for wear, his optic nerve and sense of smell are intact.)
Burton shot a live-action short called Frankenweenie in 1984, but always dreamed of telling the story as a feature-length, stop-action animated film. Burton, who loved classic horror movies as a boy, also had a pet dog. Voila — add imagination and stir.
The vast majority of live-action films use at least some existing locations but New Holland had to be built from scratch. Since articulated puppets must be re-positioned every frame or two, an animator can expect to produce only five seconds of finished footage per week of work. Frankenweenie required two years of full time effort by 33 animators. As 'out there’ as the story is, all the puppets obey the laws of physics (among the very best laws to obey, by the way.)
The model makers at British firm MacKinnon and Saunders transformed Burton's sketches into three-dimensional puppets. Lanky Victor appears to have been built on a Giacometti frame.
Sparky is taken with the girl —er, the poodle — next door, Persephone. If both dogs seem authentic, it might be because the animators studied the movements of real dogs to render these reel dogs. And like real people and animals, each silicone model boasts a re-positionable skeleton.
While Burton had but one pet dog, the production used 15 Sparky puppets in various stages of life or resurrected life. Over 300 points of articulation were packed into the relatively small silicone bodies.
There are costumes and sets as there would be for a live-action film, but the stitches in the garments must be much smaller in order to respect the scale of the puppets. The puppet wigs are fashioned from genuine human hair. Look carefully and you'll see individual hairs move when a character is in motion.
In case you're an articulated silicone 'maquette’ looking for work, stop-action films also use 'extras’.
New Holland, whose ornery mayor grows prize tulips to go with the town's windmill, is an imaginary suburban enclave best described as "a cross between Transylvania and [Burton's home town of] Burbank," according to the film's executive producer.
In the pet cemetery, the tombstones commemorate the departed animal companions of cast and crew. (One grave is adorned with "Goodbye Kitty," a welcome alternative to "Hello....".)
The utilisation of 3-D is fine and not an annoying insult as it was in Burton's inexplicably successful take on Alice in Wonderland.
Frankenweenie was described as "underperforming" in its early weeks of release. The American website IndieWIRE called it Burton's second flop in a row. (Dark Shadows being his previous film.)
The film is, perhaps, misunderstood. Some reviews have said we've seen Burton cover similar territory before. That's a bit like saying Usain Bolt has a tendency to run really fast every time he enters a race. There's nothing wrong with doing what you're good at, with slight variations. When we pay to see a concert, we feel jilted if familiar songs from the artist's repertoire are not performed. And yet, a filmmaker is tacitly expected to break new ground each time the camera rolls.
As he did in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride, Burton continues to mine horror film iconography. Frankenweenie is sweet and silly but is marbled with moments of fright and melancholy. We almost certainly remember Frankenstein's monster, King Kong and other misunderstood not-strictly-human outsiders because we sympathise with the way they're hunted down.
Also in the 'misunderstood’ category is the recent Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a jubiliantly straight-faced feast of historical nonsense with a strong horror component, produced by Burton (among others).
The only thing 'wrong’ with Frankenweenie is that there's no special reward for sitting through the closing credits — except, of course, the chance to read the names of the talented people who made this charming confection.