Tim Burton's monster mash-up
Every so often, a pair of serendipitously similar movies comes out around the same time. There was Babe and Gordy, A Bug’s Life and Antz, and then those you-know-what buddy movies with Ashton Kutcher and Justin Timberlake, respectively. The past few months have seen the release of not two but three spooky stories for kids—Paranorman, Hotel Transylvania, and Frankenweenie. The last, which was directed by Tim Burton, hardly warrants comparison with the former, however, for the same reason that Burton’s films are often said with his name as an unofficial part of the title. As Dave Itzkoff’s recent Times profile confirmed, Burton lives in a world of his own making. Luckily for us, he feels compelled to share his visions, which indicate a fondness for attics, Dutch angles, and spindly-legged protagonists.
Frankenweenie is no different. Victor is a soft-spoken suburban boy who loves science, the gloomy girl next door (Winona Ryder, of course), and his dog, Sparky, most of all. He resides in a modest house in New Holland, a town eerily regular but for a high susceptibility to lightning attributed to rumors about the wind.
When Sparky gets hit by a car and dies, Victor retreats farther into himself, until his science teacher inspires him to dig up Sparky’s body and bring it back to life. As is often the case with the undead, complications arise. Sparky, who looks a little worse for wear with crude stitches and a tail that can literally be wagged off, frightens the neighbors. And then there’s the heartbreaking moment when he’s scared by his own reflection and runs away from his maker. The pair redeems itself, though, when the pets Victor’s classmates have reanimated in hopes of winning the science fair wreak havoc at the town’s Dutch Day celebration.
Some might find Frankenweenie insufficiently dreamy compared to Burton’s other work. But despite the film’s references to straight horror films like Gremlins and Godzilla, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with its theme of undue fear of the other, is, in a way, the story Burton’s been telling all along. Unlike the classic tale, though, Frankenweenie contains an entirely sympathetic ‘monster’ and a scientist more easily forgiven for his god complex—what boy genius doesn’t have one?—who never stops loving his creation. Thus, it’s only weakly cautionary. Like Victor, we’re probably supposed to learn to let sleeping dogs lie; “It’s okay, boy. You don’t have to come back. You’ll always be in my heart,” he says. But when Sparky returns to life once more, it’s hard not to squeal, “It’s alive!” with delight. —Kate Guadagnino