Frankenweenie pays homage to monster movies

When one thinks of Tim Burton, a few things come to mind: Dark themes, stop motion animation, and Johnny Depp. Burton’s newest film — released last month — brings two of those to the screen, but leaves Depp at home.

Frankenweenie is the story of a boy and his dog, with a monster-movie twist. The film opens with the shockingly normal Frankenstein family watching a short film young Victor has made starring his dog Sparky, who saves the day from a monster attacking the town. His parents are impressed, but they worry Victor’s introverted nature will have a negative effect on his development. They make him join a baseball league so he will interact with his peers. However, after Victor hits an unlikely home run, Sparky is tragically struck by a car while chasing the home run ball. Victor is inconsolable, until he learns about the wonderful effects of electricity on the nervous system from his science teacher at New Holland Elementary.

In many ways, Frankenweenie is a homage to the monster-movie genre. The town of New Holland, complete with a Hollywood-esque sign and an old fashioned wooden windmill, is home to a number of freak lightning strikes and strange characters. The girl next door is named Elsa Van Helsing, and a few of Victor’s classmates look like Frankenstein, a hunchback, and Wednesday Addams. Burton even gives Elsa’s dog a hairdo that would make the bride of Frankenstein proud. These sorts of references take Frankenweenie beyond the genre of a children’s movie and make it enjoyable for a wider audience.

While Frankenweenie succeeds as a source of entertainment, there are implications at several stages of the movie about the ethics of scientific experimentation and the state of science education. For example, after it has come to light that Victor reanimated Sparky, the parents of the New Holland community rise up against Mr. Rzykruski, the children’s science teacher. When he is allowed to defend himself, Mr. Rzykruski condemns the parents for being ignorant of science and writing it off as magic just because they do not understand how it works. This is a one-off encounter of the theme of education that could have played a much larger role in the resolution of the story.

Frankenweenie is an adaptation of an earlier project Burton did for Disney, but it was reworked into his trademark stop motion animation style. In terms of the animation, Burton’s reputation for excellent cinematography holds true for Frankenweenie, the first black-and-white feature film to be released in IMAX. Although some scenes could have been enhanced with 3-D technology, there is no point at which it seems essential to the story. It is easy to see Burton’s love of tall, skinny characters in all of his works, as the actual animation in Frankenweenie bears a strong resemblance to that of Corpse Bride.

The humorous references to iconic monster movies as well as the emotional content of the story work together wonderfully to add another classic to Burton’s filmography.