A horror movie for kids, Frankenweenie’s PG-rated for a reason. A fluffy cat sprouts spider legs like the severed head from The Thing and flies off on batwings with an ear-piercing screech. Yes, we’re in Tim Burtonland. Clever, quirky and macabre, it’s a re-working of James Whale’s Frankenstein, name-checking a hundred other scary movies - including Scary Movie – along the way.
Young Victor Frankenstein’s best friend is his bouncy dog, Sparky. Inseparable, Victor is distraught when Sparky is killed in a road accident. Hope dawns when his uber-creepy science teacher (Martin Landau), jolts life into a frog. Digging up the dog, Victor hoists Sparky into the eye of an electrical storm. But bringing Sparky back to life causes an even bigger storm when jealous classmates steal his secret and unleash a monster plague on the sleepy town of New Holland.
No relation to Tim Burton’s previous cadaver comedy Corpse Bride – also with a Victor and a ghostly dog. Frankenweenie is back-to-basics-Burton picking up his years-long idea for an animated horror. It’s been worth the wait. Mature, restrained and remarkably generous, it treats kids seriously while giving them a shed-load of scary fun.
Litter tray humour, chases and crashes all add to the antics. And the action’s edited to edge-of-seat effect. A pet worm turns into a colossal lizard trashing the town as imp-like newts boing around terrorising the populace. But almost uniquely for a kids’ film, you just don’t know how it will end. And that’s Burton’s strongest card. At the heart of Frankenweenie is the conundrum: should Sparky be alive at all and will he be at the end? Burton’s movie takes death seriously, more so than his Corpse Bride. And how he resolves it keeps you guessing.
Beautiful production values and some shot-for-shot steals from Frankenstein, make Frankenweenie a treat for the eye. And visual gags abound too. Check out the pet cemetery – Stephen King’s Pet Semetary, of course – with its host of chucklesome gravestone pet-jokes; including ‘Goodbye Kitty’.
Sparky’s next door amour is given her own electric shock and a bouffant hair-do straight from Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. And if you didn’t get it, Victor’s goth-friend is Elsa (a croaky voiced Winona Ryder). Riffs on Gremlins, Universal’s The Mummy, Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Jurassic Park, Godzilla and many more add to the sense of horror history. And of course there’s a manic “it’s alive!” moment, uttered by a mischievous igor-impersonator.
Frankenweenie is an homage to many things: the windmill inferno climax from Universal’s Frankenstein is terrifically done, the film’s standout sequence. But Burton’s black humour and monochrome animation are resolutely his own. Philosophy, spectacle and energy – Mary Shelley would have loved it.