Tim Burton’s newest release, Frankenweenie, is a stop-motion remake of a thirty-minute film he made all the way back in 1984; the choice to retell it indicating that the story holds special significance for him. In fact, it is autobiographical in the vein of Spielberg’s Super 8, as the protagonist in the story, Victor, is an amateur filmmaker himself, living in a city not unlike the Burbank, California of Burton’s upbringing, he a friendless child with the reputation of being a “nerd” among his less-enlightened peers. We can almost Burton himself getting beat up or made fun of for spending his early years in the attic, toying around with film reels and clay models.
The story centers around Victor’s dog Sparky, to whom he has endless affection, who tragically passes. Victor and his parents bury Sparky in a pet cemetery out of Stephen King’s imagination; afterward, inspired by his macabre science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau), he secretly digs up Sparky one night, brings him home, and attempts to bring him back to life by flying a kite in a thunder storm, sending catalyzed lightning into the dog’s dead body and “sparking” him back to life. The dog wakes, a little worse for the wear (his body parts keep falling off, to comic effect), but still same old Sparky as before.
Later, as the other kids in Victor’s class begin to catch wind of what he’s done, they too want to enliven their deceased animal comrades, but it doesn’t go according to plan; one student brings his turtle back to life, but accidentally drops Miracle-Gro on the animal, and the turtle grows to Godzillan proportions. In another scene, a dead bat and a living cat become fused, the mixture resulting in horrifying black flying feline with fangs. Sparky and Victor are enlisted to save the town from this scourge of horrible creatures.
This film has all the guilty pleasures of a Burton film: creepiness; a nonchalant treatment of mortality; a fun music score; and really good, genuine characters the audience can rally around. Yet, Burton zaps life himself into this movie and into his now-standard genre of storytelling. More charming than conventional, Burton’s created a movie you can tell he cares about making.
Made by Disney and rendered in 3D, this is aimed at children, though some of the scenes had the children in my theater covering their eyes. Some kids will enjoy it, of course, but be wary about bringing others not accustomed to Burton videos. It’s a fantastic kick-off to the Halloween season, in my opinion.