Children are amazing. Not yet jaded by the world, they accept ideas more readily than adults, including the possibility that science can reanimate the corpse of a beloved family pet. Director Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie celebrates and plays on that acceptance in a humorous family-friendly tale about mad science gone wrong. Jaded parents might feel the subject matter is a little odd, but shouldn’t steer kids clear on that basis. They’ll enjoy it, and chances are you will too.
Burton has always dealt with out there ideas, and with Frankenweenie he’s once again in the darkly comic stop-motion animated territory he’s mined to such great effect in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. (Frankenweenie itself is based on a similar short that was one of Burton’s first films.) Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is a quiet, intellectual kid who keeps mostly to himself, apart from a boy’s best companion – his faithful if mischievous dog Sparky.
Victor is heartbroken when Sparky is hit by a car and passes away (a sad event, wisely kept off screen), but soon gets an idea when his science teacher (Martin Landau) demonstrates the electrical nature of the body’s nervous system. Putting his budding scientific mind to work, Victor sets up an electrical lab in the attic, harnesses the power of the town’s freakishly-common lightning storms, and is delighted when the experiment actually works, bringing Sparky back to life.
Things like this never stay secret for long, especially when Sparky has cats to chase and the neighbour’s poodle to flirt with. Soon, he’s discovered by one of Victor’s classmates, who comes calling with plans for them to win the school Science Fair. But replicating the experiment proves difficult, and things become dangerous when the other kids at school learn about the project and try a little reanimation of their own.
To say that Frankenweenie takes risks is an understatement. It’s filmed in black and white, based on classic monster films that most kids have never seen, has little laugh-out-loud humour, and has a distinctly macabre tone. But it still delights. You don’t have to know that many of the characters are modeled on classic horror actors like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre to be entertained by them, and it’s even more entertaining when they’re filtered through the behaviour of regular kids. When the monsters – based on films like Godzilla and Gremlins – arrive on screen, there are a couple of moments that may frighten young kids, but it’s otherwise suitable family fun.
The voice talent is great, especially Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, who both voice several roles each as adults and kids. They’re clearly enjoying themselves, and it translates onto the screen, causing smiles and chuckles if not outright laughs.
Frankenweenie isn’t the most obvious family film, but like kids do, it’s worth opening your mind and checking it out.