The great thing about animals—and this is corny and unoriginal—is their unconditional love. A scratch behind the ear, steady food and trips to the park go a long way for a dog, just as a comfy sofa arm goes a long way for a cat.
Tim Burton, despite plenty of cinematic evidence suggesting he doesn’t understand the first thing about relationships—human or animal—must know that. Frankenweenie, a feature-length update of his old short of the same name, is filled with knowing tributes to a kid and his dog. It also has roughly 1 billion references to horror movies of that past that are fun to count.
It’s a simple story. Young Victor Frankenstein (yes, really) loves his dog, Sparky, and Sparky, who resembles Spuds Mackenzie without the black eye, loves his boy. Sparky also loves chasing a ball. One day, while going after a home run at one of Victor’s baseball games, Sparky meets the grill of an oncoming car and comes up short.
Victor is devastated. Not long after, he’s in science class watching his teacher, Mr. Rzykruski—who looks like Vincent Price (but is voiced by Martin Landau)—send electric currents through a dead frog to demonstrate that the body’s wiring stays intact after death.
Because this is a Tim Burton movie inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor decides to dig up Sparky and see whether the old electric-current-in-the-dog trick works. It works spectacularly, and Sparky is his old self, along with a couple of bolts in his neck and lots and lots of stitches (it’s never explained, but presumably the car that killed Sparky did a serious number on his body).
What Frankenweenie has going for it, more than anything else, is Sparky himself (Frank Welker). Sparky is a great dog. He happily barks at the right time. He looks cute when he hides to avoid being discovered by Victor’s parents and friends. He loves the dog next door (and, in a nod to Bride of Frankenstein, is responsible for giving the black poodle a shock of white hair). He’s a mensch.
The humans don’t fare as well as the animals. Frankenweenie is populated with what, by now, is the standard Burton archetype: The lead looks like Johnny Depp even when the lead isn’t Johnny Depp; the supporting characters are bizarre but kind of bland; famous actors get stuck doing nothing.
In other words, many of the human characters are simply boring. Victor (Charlie Tahan) is lifeless; maybe he should electrocute himself. His parents, played by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short (who does his best Kyle MacLachlan impression here), are ramrod straight in a movie that seems made for silliness.
Listen carefully and you can hear Winona Ryder playing Elsa van Helsing (another nod), the girl next door. One would never know it was Winona Ryder because there’s nothing to set this character apart from the other bland souls populating the screen. (The giveaway, aside from the credits, is that Ryder still whistles the letter “S” after all these years).
Most of the ingenuity behind character creation is left to the supporting cast. Victor has a friend—more like a frenemy—named Edgar, who looks a lot like Fritz from James Whale’s Frankenstein, hunchback and all.
There’s also a kid who resembles Boris Karloff in his guise as Frankenstein’s monster, complete with the haircut and flat head. A nice touch is the character’s lisp, a trait he shares with Karloff himself.
So how does this all tie together? With a big, scary monsteriffic showdown, of course. The neighborhood kids discover what Victor has done with Sparky, and they all try to replicate the experiment to win a science fair. It’s all fairly benign and PG-rated, and even the littlest of kids should be able to handle the imagery, which is sometimes kind of freaky.
The group at the screening I attended thought the monsters were great and were more delighted than frightened. Six-year-olds must have gotten tougher since I was a kid, though.