I've always been a fan of the films of Tim Burton. I think I've already mentioned how it's probably because he's the first director I identified with...as in, he's the first director I discovered when I discovered what a director is. And for those who don't know the history, Tim Burton actually began his career as an animator, working at Disney.
Burton has actually gone on record as saying that being an animator at Disney was one of the worst and least-fulfilling times in his career. Back when A&E Biography was still a thing, I remember watching the biography of Tim Burton, and they interviewed two of his old Disney colleagues, John Musker and Ron Clemmens, who directed The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules, and their recent triumphant return to 2D animation, The Princess and the Frog. Musker and Clemmens told the tale of how, when Burton was having a bad day at work, he would literally go hide in the closet until it was time to go home.
However, Burton eventually found solace by breaking away from animation and trying his hand at directing live-action. One of the first things that gained him some acclaim as a director was a short film he made called Frankenweenie. It was a retelling of the Frankenstein tale. Only in this version, Victor Frankenstein is a 10-year old boy, and his monster is Sparky, his resurrected dog. Depending on which version of the story you go by, Burton was either fired or he quit Disney over the film, as Disney branded it too scary for kids and refused to release it. But still, it played enough film festivals and enough people saw it in Hollywood that it led to Burton's first directing gig, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.
And then, in the early 1990s, when Burton started becoming a famous director, Disney finally released it straight-to-video. It's been a bonus feature on the DVD of The Nightmare Before Christmas ever since, and that's how I finally saw the film. The original short is cute, and you can see the origins of Burton's trademark style.
Flash-forward to the present day. Now that we've had a generation raised on Goosebumps and Are You Afraid of the Dark?, it's starting to become OK for spooky kids entertainment. As such, Disney asked Burton if he'd like to do a feature-length remake of Frankenweenie. Only instead of live-action, it'd be stop-motion animated like The Nightmare Before Christmas. Burton said yes, and Frankenweenie came out last October...just in time for Halloween. It came out on DVD a few days ago, so of course, I had to pick it up on my way home from Star Wars Identities.
So the plot is still the same. Victor Frankenstein is a 10-year old boy. He's not lonely, but he is a loner, and his best friend in the whole wide world is his dog, Sparky. Worried that his son might be friendless, Victor's father encourages Victor to take a break from science and give baseball a try.
However, there's strange things afoot, as Victor is given a prophecy by the weird girl in his class (we never learn her name...even in the end credits, she's simply called "The Weird Girl.") For you see, she's a bit of an oracle, as she can tell the future based on what her cat leaves in the litter box. That's right. Some read tea leaves, she reads cat poop. And her cat has a dire prediction for Victor. And the jokes about cat poop prophecies goes on uncomfortably too long...which is my favourite kind of joke.
So in his debut game, Victor hits a home run, but Sparky thinks they're playing fetch, so Sparky chases the ball into the street and...sad things happen. Victor loses his best friend. Victor is sullen, but then gains new hope thanks to his science teacher. In class one day, his teacher demonstrates that the nervous system uses electrical impulses throughout the body to make things move, and shows this by making a dead frog twitch its legs by shocking it. Victor soon hatches a plan. One dark and stormy night, he goes to the pet cemetery and digs up Sparky's corpse. Taking Sparky back to his lab in the attic, Victor raises Sparky out into the lightening storm, and brings Sparky back from the dead!
Gotta love this scene...it's pretty much a shot-for-shot recreation of the scene from the original short film.
Of course, the next morning, when Victor goes off to school, the unattended Sparky goes on a rampage through the neighbourhood. And by a rampage, I mean your typical puppy dog mischief like chasing cats and knocking over garbage cans.
And here's where I should start mentioning the padding. After all, the 45 minute short film had to be expanded to a 90 minute feature. The major subplot is the upcoming science fair, and all the kids are working on their science projects. Victor's lab partner, Edgar Gore (E. Gore, get it?), spies Sparky on his rampage, and figures out what Victor has done. So, of course, Edgar blackmails Victor into resurrecting an animal for his science project, the end result of which is an invisible goldfish. Edgar promptly shows off his invisible goldfish, but like all goldfish, the goldfish has a short lifespan.
Now, there's a whole bunch of science related mishaps that go on in the neighbourhood, thanks to all the kids working on their science projects, and soon, the science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, is called up on the carpet. Sadly, Mr. Rzykruski defends what he's doing by calling all the parents stupid and ignorant for being afraid of science, and he winds up getting fired. But, before he goes, he does have some inspirational words for young Victor. Gotta say, Mr. Rzykruski is a great character, voice by Martin Landau (whom Burton directed to an Oscar in Ed Wood) and very much designed to look like Burton's mentor, horror icon Vincent Price.
Well, it's not long before Victor's parents discover Sparky in the attic, and shocked and scared, Sparky runs away. And in what has to be the saddest moment in the film, Sparky eventually returns to the pet cemetery and curls up on his gravestone. Although we do get a chuckle out of Victor's father's very reserved reaction to his son playing God. He just simply says that it's "unsettling."
As Victor and his parents go on a desperate search for Sparky, the neighbourhood kids - led by Edgar - break into Victor's lab and unlock the secrets to creating their own monster pets, which they figure will assure them victory in the science fair. Victor's main rival, Nassor, creates a hamster mummy named Colossus. The Japanese kid creates a Godzilla-sized turtle...so I guess that's be a Gammera. Oh, and cultural stereotypes FTW. Edgar creates a were-rat. The fat kid creates some Gremlin-like sea monkeys. And the Weird Girl accidentally crosses her cat with a bat, creating a vampire cat.
Once Victor and Sparky are re-united, they must quickly join forces to save the town from all these monster pets. Thanks to Victor's science smarts, and Sparky's pluckiness, they easily take down all the monsters, save for the vampire cat, who has abducted the Bride of Frankenstein-ish poodle (Sparky's love) and her owner Elsa (Victor's crush) to the windmill at the edge of town. Of course, at around this time, the townsfolk mistake Sparky for another of the monster pets, and form a lynch mob, chasing him to the windmill.
But of course, at the windmill, Victor saves Elsa, Sparky saves Victor, and Sparky dies fighting the vampire cat to the death. But, Sparky is pulled from the wreckage, and with all the townsfolk using their car batteries, enough electricity is generated to bring Sparky back from beyond once again. And Sparky and Victor live happily ever after!
This movie has such a case of the warm and fuzzies, you guys. You will go "aww..." more than you laugh or cry or shriek in terror. Sparky has got to be the most adorable animated dog ever to hit the screen. And they love each other, you guys! Victor and Sparky love each other so much! It's just SO DARN SWEET!
You'll probably think I'm high for saying this, but this is a movie that makes you believe in love.
That being said, you can feel the padding that was used to get this movie out to 90 minutes. And I really did wish they developed the character of Elsa a little more. Victor's girl next door. We think she's his crush, we're not too sure. They never share more than a glance and a smile from across a crowded room. We learn early on that her parents are out of town, and she's currently in the care of her borderline abusive uncle. Like Victor, she's alone, but not lonely. But she just doesn't do much of anything in the film. And it's a shame, too, because in another reference to former Tim Burton film, she's voiced by Burton's old Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands star Winona Ryder, and the character is pretty much modeled after Lydia from Beetlejuice. But she and Victor do have a great scene together, where they're both in their backyards and have a heart-to-heart over the fence. I'm a sucker for such scenes, ever since Sam Raimi put a similar one in his first Spider-Man film.
I'm glad I brought up Edward Scissorhands, because this movie looks and feels a lot like that one. It's got a similar design, it all looks like a very similar suburb. This really does feel like early Tim Burton stuff.
I really liked it, guys. You can feel the love from this film.
Let's end with the theme song!