See Victor run and play.
Victor plays with his dog Sparky.
Hi, Sparky. Good boy.
There’s Mom and Dad.
They watch Victor’s homemade movies.
Aren’t the movies fun?
Look, Sparky is in them, too.
One day Sparky runs into traffic.
Wait, boy, wait!
Mom and Dad sigh.
Victor has a plan.
He’s going to take a cue from his eccentric science teacher and set up a collection of flashing and fritzing TVs and toasters in his attic.
He’s going to conduct a supercharged lightning bolt from a passing storm into his stitched-together pet and shock the beloved animal back to life!
Look, there’s Victor and Sparky.
See them run and play.
Hello again, Sparky. Good boy.
Wow, that’s creepy.
A hunchback school friend named Edgar thinks Victor’s pet-reanimation efforts are all part of a science fair project. But he’s wrong. Victor resurrects Sparky from pure love. Indeed, Mr. Rzykruski, the science teacher, points out that Victor’s love had everything to do with the experiment’s success. “Science is not good or bad,” the teacher says. “But it can be used both ways.” And, in fact, the pet-resuscitation attempts made by the other kids all go awry, seemingly because of their less-than-pure motivations.
Victor’s parents certainly love their son. And they do their best to comfort him when he loses his pet. His mom tells him, “When you lose someone you love, you never really lose them. They just move into a very special place in your heart.”
Victor bravely runs into a burning building to save a neighbor girl.
Several pets are reanimated, but this isn’t anything at all like Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery. The movie repeatedly mentions the science behind the feat, shunting any sort of spiritual aspect beyond the love that Victor feels for Sparky.
Still, when he finds out about Sparky’s revival, Dad openly worries about his son’s choice, saying, “Crossing the boundary between life and death is very upsetting!” And one of the lightning-blasted animals does turn into a demonic-looking cat. There’s superstitious talk in the town about the frequent thunderstorms it endures—that it might be because it was built on top of an old cemetery. We see crosses in the pet graveyard.
Some smashing, bashing and gouging things happen in Victor and Sparky’s town of New Holland … with most of the serious stuff taking place offscreen. When Sparky’s hit by a speeding car, we see everything leading up to the collision, but not the impact itself. And when Victor later digs up the dog’s remains and sews the cut and injured areas back together (substituting a patch of patterned fabric for fur in one place) we again get the gist of the action without seeing anything gory or gross. The closest we come is when Victor screws bolts into a section of the pup’s neck. There are, of course, a bunch of rough-hewn stitches evident on the dog once he’s sparked back to life.
The resurrection experiment itself is a lightning bolt-charged sparkfest that sets electrical appliances to glowing and zaps the blanket-covered dog corpse with a sizzling, smoking blast of electricity. (It’s all motivated by a science test that shocks leg-flinching “life” back into a dead frog’s legs.)
The newly reanimated Sparky takes quite a few tumbles while regaining his living land legs—including falling off a roof and smashing through a window. One rambunctious, happy hindquarters-shake results in the dog’s tail falling off. (To which Victor exclaims, “I can fix that.”) The poodle next door is thrown back in a shocked tumble when she touches her nose to Sparky’s neck bolt. Sparky is connected via jumper cables to a group of cars at one point.
Various other kids find or dig up animals to bring back to life, and almost all of the creatures end up terrorizing others and causing destruction. A turtle is transformed into a Godzilla-like monster that crushes cars, smashes buildings and roars at passersby. A rat becomes a man-sized beast that chases and slashes at people with razor claws. A package of Sea-Monkeys are turned into gremlins that cause all manner of havoc until they blow up in gelatinous globs upon ingesting salt. A cat—holding a dead bat in its teeth—is transformed into a flying demon thing that hisses and snaps at people with its sharp fangs. At one point it swoops in and carries off a girl. And it’s eventually impaled by a sharp beam that falls from a burning building. Other than that cat—and another resurrected pet that’s smashed flat by the Godzilla turtle—all the animals either explode in globs or are hit by lightning and revert back to their previously dormant state.
The county fairgrounds is pretty much devastated by these attacking creatures. And a mini golf course windmill is accidentally set on fire by a crowd of neighbors with torches.
[Spoiler Warning] Late in the movie a brave Sparky pulls Victor to safety from that burning windmill. Then the cuddly, cobbled-together creature gets pulled back in and dies … again.
[Copycat Warning] Kids try a jetpack experiment that involves large bottles of carbonated water and jumping off a roof. One boy ends up with his arm in a sling.
One exclamation of “oh gee.” Name-calling extends to a character’s name: Weird Girl.
The supercharged Sea-Monkeys drink from a keg of ale at the fair.
Victor lies to his parents to cover up his dog-raising activities. (He eventually fesses up.) When a neighbor girl has to sing a song in public, she groans out, “I welcome death!”
Several mentions are made of Sparky’s peeing habits. And an odd girl from school talks of interpreting her pet cat’s dreams based on the shape of its morning litter box droppings—showing us several examples of letter-shaped poop. After the living-dead dog chews and slobbers on a mislaid baby pacifier, a mom nonchalantly picks it up and pops it back in her baby’s mouth.
As a junior Disney animator, Tim Burton was fired back in 1984 after creating the original 30 minute live-action short on which this movie is based. House of Mouse execs thought the finished product was too scary for children back then. But in true raise-the-dead style, Burton and Disney have now shambled back to stitch together a feature-length version.
Call it reanimated animation.
This new monochrome stop-motion puppet remake is pretty much the same story as that old short film. Indeed, in some scenes, it feels like a shot-for-shot duplication. So is it still “too scary” for kids? Well, the movie is all about a beloved pet dying and being raised from the dead with lots of “It’s Alive!” monster-movie theatrics. And I did observe one young tyke next to me at the screening who opted to climb into her dad’s lap at one point. But it may have been more for a better angle at the popcorn box than for any needed brave-Daddy comfort.
“I think people forget that in The Lion King a guy gets killed, and that was rated G!” director Burton said in an indiewire.com interview. “I always thought this was a really safe way to explore those things for kids without being really hardcore about it, because at some point when you’re young, either a pet or a grandparent dies.”
The softly diffused animation—in black-and-white no less—helps this film live up to Burton’s stated intent, making everything quite a bit more cartoonish than the original. And the scores of old monster movie references, the classic filmmaking style and the bizarrely comic, exaggerated bug-eyed characters tend to strain any intense scariness out of the mix.
Still, Frankenweenie can, at times, feel macabre—like when the resurrected Sparky chases water spurts that spray out of his stitched seams after he takes a drink from his bowl. And that whole grave-robbing/bolts-in-the-neck stir-fry we see is, of course, categorically creepy.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.