July 23, 2019

THIS WEEK’S POPCORN: ‘Frankenweenie’

“Frankenweenie:” Total Tail Wagger

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer


“Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton’s animated, stop action reimagining of the classic Mary Shelley horror tale Hollywood brought to life in 1931 is wonderfully nutty. Part parody, part paean, and delivered in era-emulative black and white, it heartily basks us in the eerie legend while taking the occasion to make a contemporary social comment or two.

As he lovingly dips back into his cartoon/artistic roots at Disney, it occurs that director Burton is the Fellini of animation, his grotesque, circus-like characters readily evincing philosophic notes on the perennially wacky state of things. Still, trust that it is ultimately optimistic, even if its only half-kidding delivery sears with ominous incantations.

Here, taking advantage of a broadening, more enlightened view of what kids should or should not see, he makes the Frankenstein metaphor even more approachable whilst also upping the ante on the traditional boy and his dog story. And you don’t need the scientific acumen of a Dr. Frankenstein to plumb the witty criticisms on bullying and peer pressure.

So sit back and meet little Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) and his, uh, typically American family, denizens of New Holland, Somewhere or Other, living in the late ‘50’s or early 1960s. The sneering, poetic vagueness of the nonetheless familiar time and place heightens the acerbic observations with passionately seriocomic whimsy.

Making it a point to inform that Victor has no friends increases the dramatic importance of the grade school loner’s relationship with his pup, Sparky, a pointy-nosed bull terrier of sorts who stars in his master’s home movies, not unlike the filmmaker’s actual history.  Well, we know it’s coming…a kid’s worst nightmare. Sparky chases a ball into the street.

Even if you were lucky enough as a child to avoid the despondency that then rains down and engulfs Victor, you can’t help but emote. But then, this is a movie, and a PG-rated one at that, the Burton signature notwithstanding. Backtrack a bit and Victor is being inspired by his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski. A light bulb goes on above his head.

Until now, Victor hadn’t quite decided what his project would be for the much heralded Science Competition announced by the controversial Eastern European educator, mistrusted by the bulk of New Holland’s Babbitts. Now, it’s a no-brainer. Turning his attic into the proverbial mad scientist’s lab, he begins his work…to resurrect Sparky.

The sociology is spot on, Martin Landau urgently, intelligently voicing the ostracized Rzykruski, heretofore the only human who speaks to Victor’s sensibilities. Press your cheek to truth and purity, the besieged iconoclast exhorts as he packs the trunk of his tiny, character-correct foreign car. Now more than ever, Victor is alone. He must succeed.

What particularly delights, aside from the screwball fancifulness of the filmmaker’s comic homage, is the apparent fun he’s having whilst unloading ideas he’s doubtless wanted to frame in one piece de resistance. Harking back to themes he nurtured in his formative years, he puts them all together in a loving, biographically sensitive giambotta.

It makes no difference, for example, that Tod Browning’s “Dracula” (1931) is but a genre cousin to this variation on director James Whale’s 1931 adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s irreverent reverie. He gleefully tosses in several cues just the same: i.e. —Victor’s cute neighbor is Elsa Van Helsing, as in Dr. Van Helsing, the vampire expert.


The cross-pollination is then further synergized as Burton turns the intolerant burghers of his source material into stereotypical suburban types, and with frighteningly little effort at that. Rather ingeniously, as aficionados of the lore will attest, he realizes his lampoon in terms that would still make it recognizable to Mary Shelley, just in case, y’know.

But beware, parents who feel it’s high time Tyler and Brittany saw their first horror flick. Cartoon or not, there are some scary scenes, borne out by the mortified toddlers the two daddies to my left dragged to the theater. Unhappy that they merely lacked judgment, by not removing the hysterical waifs the Neanderthals also proved they were inconsiderate.

That dutifully noted, tots north of 8 should be heartened to learn that Victor must deal with the same jerky classmates and status issues that they do while seeking a safe, ego-pleasing niche in a world fraught with ambiguity and fears, Franken monster or not. They might also relate to albeit loving parents who don’t always know what’s good for Victor.

But most profound is how Burton again embraces the ghoulish and bizarre as a vehicle to understanding. Combine that with superb verbalizations by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, plus black and white imagery often suitable for framing, and “Frankenweenie” introduces yet another generation to the sheer joy of intoning, “It’s alive, it’s alive!”

“Frankenweenie,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Pictures release directed by Tim Burton and stars the voices of Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara and Charlie Tahan. Running time: 87 minutes


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