Frankenweenie – Tim Burton – 2012

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I grew up on Tim Burton films. Beetlejuice would define a marriage between the morbid and ghostly aspects of storytelling with a dark comedy edge. Many of his early films managed to combine the gruesome with the beautiful and humorous. And then came Sleepy Hollow, a fine and beautiful film, but gone was the humor. For all its fondness for Hammer classics and delightful gore, the film is ultimately a bit too dour and procedural. From then on Burton’s films have gone through a cycle of what I’ll not kindly call unfunny.

Frankenweenie is a gas. I laughed through most of it. Had it been a silent film, I still would have laughed the whole time, but the vocal characterizations are just as funny as the design of the characters. The plot examines a boy re-animating his dog, and then his secrets being stolen by other kids with monstrous consequences. Finally, Tim Burton looks like he is having fun making a movie again.

I love the choice for it to be black and white. I love the 3D of the film. It lets you get up close with the characters rumpled and handmade textures. The direction is spectacular and Burton makes the most out of the fact that he’s making an animated film. (Wholly unlike the Corpse Bride, which feels like it, was made in a shoebox.) It’s a distillation of all things Tim Burton, a closing of the loop, as you will, going back to his original short with all the lessons he’s learned between now and then. It is as if this is the film he’s been making the whole time.

It carries with it all the classic Burton themes. Idiosyncratic, outsider protagonist. Closed minded suburbanites. German expressionist designs. Winona Rider. It feels like a film I would have loved as a kid. (I did actually love the old Frankenweenie when I saw it on the Disney channel as a tot.)

There is a sub-plot about the parents extricating a science teacher who threatens to broaden the children’s minds, and while it gives the film a little meat, it is not exactly like this film is pro-science. In fact, the product of scientific experiment nearly brings the entire town to fiery death!

And really, the suggestion of scientific responsibility is front and center in this tale of re-animated house pets gone awry. With each new discovery is room for exploitation of its power in nefarious hands. Is Victor being responsible when he shows his experiment off? I know he was blackmailed, but there may have been another way. Before long, everyone has Victor’s secret, and in the wrong hands, this science can be devastating.

I love the third act. It’s like having all your toys in the sandbox at once and really giving it a go. All bets are off as Burton goes off the rails and turns the movie into a Kaiju epic! I’m a huge Gamera fan so this stuff really made me smile.

The film really delivers an insane message at the end when Victor, appearing to have learned a lesson says, “Dad, you told me I should just let him go.” Then dad says, “Sometimes parents don’t know what they are talking about”. So….you are just going to endorse your child’s practice of re-animation. I mean Sparky was a good dog, but didn’t this get you into trouble in the first place? Also, what do you tell a young viewer who wants to go home and re-animate their pet. Or worse, re-animate their pet while its still alive?

I’m really just kidding! I loved the film and cried a bit at the end. Sparky reminds me of my dog Ollie, and I’m sure all dog owners will see little bits of their hound sewn into Sparky’s performance. If you love dogs or re-animated corpses or monsters, go see this film and celebrate the return of the funny Tim Burton.

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