Review: The sparks of Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie is exactly what we needed it to be.

The opening of the film is surprisingly emotional. I expected, since we already know that Sparky has to die to make the story work, that we’d start there, much like the original short. The film would kick off with Sparky’s death, and move directly to the inciting event, his resurrection. However, director Tim Burton decides to go another direction and instead offers us a very long exposition. Through it, the characters are developed in touching ways, including Sparky, and the emotional connections established in this long introduction inform the rest of the film.

Burton manages to make Sparky real to us, not by personifying the dog, but ironically by making the character as dog-like as possible, the figure embodies everything that we all love about canines and the effect they have on us.

Interestingly, beyond this emotional connection, the characters are rather downplayed through heavy stereotyping.

Most everyone we meet is strongly archetypal, and through that archetype, much potential for personality is lost.

This, however, does not blunt the emotional effect of the film’s most dramatic moments. Counter-intuitively, it strengthens them, allowing the audience to focus on those pure emotional bonds, rather than worrying about specifics.

The conflict in the film is similarly treated. The heroisms of the film’s surface conflict are well paced and tension-filled, but otherwise rather cliché. Again, this becomes a strength, when the film is allowed to focus more closely on the abstract elements of the sub-plots and deeper sociological conflict.

When we look deeper, it’s not just about a boy’s love for his dog, or the obstacles to getting him back from the dead. It’s about science and the way we put it to use. It’s only touched on directly in one brief scene, when Victor is saying goodbye to a science teacher who has been let go from the school for encouraging scientific inquiry.

The observant viewer, however, will notice that every resurrection experiment performed – once the secret gets out, the challenge is wrangling the undead pets – is a reflection of the purpose of the experiment. Sparky was resurrected out of love, and so is a loving and stable dog-zombie. The creatures resurrected out of laziness, jealousy, pride, and even just pure results driven desire, all turn out horribly wrong in one way or another. The ‘lesson’ being that science is not inherently good or bad, it is what you put into it.

Of course, this is very similar to the lesson of the original Frankenstien novel, which is not the only parallel, despite the actual plot not falling very closely in line with the classic Shelly novel.

All this is not yet even mentioning the visual style. Stop-motion is a difficult medium to pull off, especially when you want to show action and emotion effectively, but Burton pulls it off masterfully. Every scene is seamless, and the 3D is never gratuitous or gimmicky. The design reminds one of Edward Scisorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and other early Burton works which established his unique vision, while simultaneously conjuring up the visuals of the classic monster films of yore.

Frankenweenie is Burton’s return to the top of his art, following a recent spate of homogenized Hollywood productions. He shows himself here to once again be a filmmaker who is unafraid to follow his own darkly comical vision, and in so doing has created what will surely be a new classic family fantasy film.

Frankenweenie is in theaters now.