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Just in time for Halloween on the heels of Paranorman and Hotel Transylvania, Tim Burton is back with a remake of his 1984 short film, Frankenweenie. One of two recent partnerships with Disney (the other was Alice in Wonderland, 2010), this one is particularly noteworthy as a product of stop-motion animation. Burton used over 200 hand-crafted puppets frame-by-frame to create the first 3D stop-motion movie.
Burton’s craftsmanship extends into the story itself. Frankenweenie is a horror-movie-buff’s dream, hearkening back to the 1931 version of Frankenstein (based on Mary Shelley’s book) as well as other horror classics. Viewers who haven’t seen Dracula (1931) and Godzilla (1954) will miss a lot of allusions, and that eventually becomes problematic, since Burton weaves a Frankenstein-like finale, cobbling together endings from numerous classic movies.
Even so, it’s a remarkable film. When our young hero, Victor Frankenstein, loses his dog, Sparky, in a car accident, Victor uses his scientific know-how to bring Sparky back to life. But this leads to gross abuse of power over life and death by Victor’s friends, and Victor and Sparky risk losing each other again to save their town. The story entertains, provokes, and raises fascinating philosophical questions. For instance, Burton completely removes the Designer and hence any reason we ought not to play God with science—i.e., the new ending.
These aren’t scary issues for grounded adults. And for adults and older kids familiar with Burton’s shtick, the shadowy milieu won’t horrify either, despite scenes of a pet being impaled and other violent and unsettling deaths. What is frightening is the movie’s PG rating, along with Disney’s and Burton’s marketing to young children. When asked whether Frankenweenie might be too scary for them, Burton compared his movie to Pinocchio, saying, “Disney founded its company … on things that were scary. To me, this was really safe.” Cold comfort to the child behind me in the theater who cried through the last 20 minutes. Her words (and mine to parents of young children): “I don’t like this movie.”