From the mind of Tim Burton comes the charming re-telling of the tale of Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), who has the terrific and terrible (and traumatic) need to bring something he loves back to life.
Victor lives in New Holland, a town that screams “1950s”, but is actually a homage to any town, any time USA, as the Frankensteins enjoy fondue dipping for supper (wasn’t that a 70s thing?), the cars and furniture look slightly 1960s, and Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder) is a throwback to the Goth chicks of the ‘90s.
It is fun to spot the different nods to different things, just pop culture in general. Victor sneaks home at one point and his parents are sitting on the couch watching Christopher Lee as Dracula. Basically this movie is Tim Burton’s homage to pop culture with his own personal signatures.
Victor Frankenstein looks a lot like Victor in The Corpse Bride, and any Burton fan will recognize nods to himself: use of butterflies, the rag doll look (Sparky comes back looking like a patchwork version of his pervious self), Danny Elfman music (of course). The fact that Tim Burton has had a huge impact on pop culture himself was not lost on me as I watched this movie.
The premise is the story of the Frankenstein monster. After Victor’s beloved dog Sparky dies, Victor tries to bring him back to life. His school science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) inspires Victor and his students to think scientifically and apparently the students take the annual science fair projects very seriously.
Other students in the class are in furious competition to have the number one science fair project.
When it gets out that Victor has brought Sparky back to life, another student demands to know how and manages to bring a dead goldfish back. But the experiment is different the second time, because the goldfish turns invisible and can only be seen with a light shining through the glass. It also looks sinister - and it bites people.
Mr. Rzykruski helps Victor discover the truth behind the experiment. Victor loves Sparky, and that makes all the difference. The goldfish was just a dead goldfish in the pet store. Sparky has heart and Victor’s main component in his first was his love for his pet.
Others in the class try to steal the secret and soon they are robbing the pet cemetery of dead pets. New Holland apparently has a huge pet cemetery, reminiscent of a Stephen King story. The raised pets become monsters and invade the town and Victor with Sparky and his friend Elsa must save the day.
In a scene that reminds one of Gremlins (nod to the ‘80s), the sea monkeys one aspiring student has raised in a pool take over the town carnival, destroying the annual festival of Dutch Day. When it is discovered that salt makes them blow up, they have to lure them into a popcorn machine.
I am still undecided if I like Frankenweenie. One of the odd aspects is that the animation, or stop motion, was filmed in black and white (another nod to older era films). While this lends a certain creepiness to the visual palette of the film, I am unsure if I like it or not.
My other thought was that as a Tim Burton fan, I couldn’t help but compare Frankenweenie to his previous work - namely Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. I don’t think this film stands alone. It is not strong enough to do so, and I believe it will be compared to previous work (which is ironic since Frankenweenie technically came first, as a short).
Frankenweenie is entertaining and even a little scary at the end (at least for my three-year-old daughter who ran screaming from the room and refused to watch anymore). The monsters are a tad on the frightening side.
But the next day, she asked to watch Frankenweenie again and talked about the ‘puppy’ and how much she liked him. I guess that is the power of Tim Burton to both scare and make kids love this dead dog.
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