It’s a dog’s life (again)

Well, this is actually a sentimental kind of retro-gothic lite, appearing under the Disney banner: very Tim Burton and also very Steven Spielberg, whose influence was at its most potent when the story was conceived as a sort of ET meets The Munsters.

It’s stop-motion animation, filmed in Twilight Zone monochrome and set in classic American suburbia during what could be the 1950s, though an odd reference to Pluto being downgraded from full-planet status appears to put it within the last decade.

A smart kid with sleek dark hair and a deathly pallor, whose name just happens to be Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), worries his mum and dad (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) by being entirely uninterested in healthy outdoor pursuits.

Weirdly, however, everyone in town has the same unhealthy look, so much so that you might suspect the point of the story is going to be that they are all zombies). Anyway, Victor just stays in his room, making Super 8 home movies with toys, models and starring the one creature he loves more than all the world: his dog, presciently and ironically named Sparky. But Victor’s head is turned by the dangerous free-thinking views of his science teacher, a gaunt central-European Vincent Price-lookalike called Mr Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau, who played Bela Lugosi in Burton’s Ed Wood). When poor Sparky is accidentally killed, grief-ridden Victor digs up the doggy corpse in the dead of night, wires it up to the electric currents from a thunderstorm and, behold, the creature lives: Frankenweenie!

The scene in which Sparky dies really is superb. It’s not cod, it’s not pastiche, it’s not “gothic” — it is just a brilliant dramatic scene. Spielberg would be proud to have made that. Unfortunately the rest of the film, though entirely amiable and entertaining, doesn’t have anything to equal or develop it. The film becomes an all-purpose monster movie for kids, although at the very end I feel it becomes creepy and necrophiliac in ways that are not intentional.

But there’s a fair bit of fun to be had with the incidental detail and the references to Boris Karloff, Godzilla, Christopher Lee and much else. Mr Rzykruski gets some big laughs when he’s called upon to explain himself and calm the anxieties of suspicious parents. He frankly calls them stupid and ignorant and says that all he wants to do is break the children’s heads open to get at the brains within. Not surprisingly, the grownups are not reassured by this metaphor.

Perhaps Frankenweenie, the lovable undead pooch, is a comment on our perennial regressive desire to remain kids, and it touches, glancingly, on the idea that we are most daring and brilliantly creative in our earliest youth, before buttoned-up adulthood constrains us. At all events, it’s a likeable film, though not a sensational development in Tim Burton’s career. — ©­­ Guardian News & Media 2012

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Peter Bradshaw
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