The grownups think he’s strange, this quiet boy who may be a genius or a menace. He makes bizarre home movies about his beloved pit bull terrier, and when the creature is killed, he resolves to bring him back to life: reanimation through animation.
That is the plot of Frankenweenie — and the story of the young Tim Burton in his first stint at Disney in the early 1980s. Like a few other Mouse House rebels (John Lasseter, Brad Bird), Burton felt his imagination was being stifled by a timid hierarchy in bondage to the glorious past. He was allowed to make a 29-minute live-action film, Frankenweenie, but when early audiences found its preoccupation with a pet’s death unsuitable for kids, execs shelved the movie. They must have been wondering, “What would Walt do?” before the answer came back: “Fire him!” Score that decision as a loss for Disney and freedom for the 26-year-old director, who went on to create weird worlds elsewhere — in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands — and, back at Disney, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood and Alice in Wonderland.
The passage of time and a few changes in administrations — not to mention the billion-dollar worldwide gross for Alice — can heal all wounds. So here’s a feature-length Frankenweenie, rendered in the stop-motion-animation technique used in Nightmare and Burton’s 2005 Corpse Bride. This 3-D, black-and-white “family” comedy is the year’s most inventive, endearing animated feature.
In the suburban town of New Holland, the boy, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan, who was excellent as Natalie Portman’s stepson in The Other Woman), lives with his doting if clueless parents Ben (Martin Short) and Susan (Catherine O’Hara). Shy and studious, Victor loves tinkering in the attic and makes little movies starring his beloved Sparky as the monster and the savior. When Sparky is run over by a car, Victor is devastated by the loss of his one true friend — until he watches his science teacher (Martin Landau) make a dead frog move with the application of electric shocks. After digging up Sparky from his resting place in the local pet cemetery, Victor borrows all of his mom’s household appliances, takes them to the attic and plugs them in. At the convenient approach of a lightning storm, he uses kite power to raise the late Sparky to the sizzling heavens and, voilà!, we have a full-fledged Frankenstein pastiche.
When dragged to the funerals of their grandparents, children may get a taste of mortality — the casket, the relatives in black, the sepulchral whispers — but their first real brush with death is likely to come at the passing of an adored pet. With Sparky’s demise, Victor feels as if he has died too. Yet this death gives the boy a sacred, or unholy, mission. Victor has to believe not only that Sparky can be revived the way the dead so often are in the Hollywood stories he has imitated in his home movies but also that he, a science whiz, is the ordained reanimator. Frankenweenie‘s message to the young: children should play with dead things. (Maybe the drab minds at Disney three decades ago had a point. We wouldn’t recommend this film to kids under, say, 6.)
This being a Burton production, Victor is not alone in his precocious necrophilia. Virtually all the other kids in his class have a touch of the macabre, from Edgar “E.” Gore (featuring a precisely hilarious vocal performance from Atticus Shaffer), a hunchback who must have been raised on Peter Lorre movies, to the child known only as Weird Girl (O’Hara again), whose creepy cat, Mr. Whiskers, will undergo his own terrifying transformation. The whole student body could be the spawn of the clown monsters in Hotel Transylvania, but with the special gravity of bright, sad children. Even Elsa (Winona Ryder), Victor’s pretty love interest next door, has a hankering for the grave. When told by her uncle Mayor Burgermeister (Short again) that “a lot of girls would kill to be in your place,” Elsa curtly replies, “I’d welcome death.”
Burton’s first movie project, now his latest, fits into his career-long fascination with warped domesticity. He sees in any family a dialectic between the weird and the normal — and really, who knows which is which? In Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Corpse Bride and Dark Shadows, family members juggle the deadly and the fantastic; Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street create improvised families united in their search for art or revenge.
Like Edward Scissorhands — the Johnny Depp character with the cutlery cuticles who is adopted by well-meaning strangers into a suburban home — Victor feels estranged from the adults in his house as well as the rest of New Holland, not by animosity but by his belief that he is a separate species, which he is: a brilliant kid with a mortal secret. So he necessarily stumbles into the family of classmates who want to reanimate their pets too. This leads to a third act of blended pastiches: Frankenstein, Gamera, Gremlins and a dozen other horror-movie icons spindled, mutilated and treasured. For instance, when Persephone, Elsa’s poodle, goes nose to nose with the revived Sparky, she gets an electric shock that leaves her hair with a zigzaggy white streak like Elsa Lanchester’s in the 1935 James Whale classic Bride of Frankenstein.
The whole movie is so confident, it seems effortless. Yet the stop-motion process is agonizing: puppets placed in miniature sets are moved a fraction of an inch for every frame of film. It’s work for childlike obsessives, for labor in the service of love, and the puppeteers at Mackinnon & Saunders were up to the challenge. One imagines them as kids, helping Victor — or, decades ago, Burton — make his first movies. Frankenweenie has that youthful verve and the ghoulishness of strange kids who will some day be eccentric creators. This movie is an attic experiment for its makers to be proud of and for audiences to give a fond pat on the head.