One deliciously dark tale
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 5, 2012
During the next month, Americans will be called upon to make a choice between two very distinct visions. No, not Obama vs. Romney. I’m talking about “Frankenweenie” vs. “Hotel Transylvania.”
The two animated, monster-movie-themed releases -- both timed to coincide with the pre-Halloween season -- are almost polar opposites. Opening last week to mostly negative reviews, “Hotel Transylvania” is aimed squarely at the very youngest viewers, with tired jokes about flatulence and an insipid lead performance by Adam Sandler as Count Dracula.
“Frankenweenie,” on the other hand, arrives this weekend with a very different pedigree, and a jolt of jangly energy. The story of a young science nerd who brings his dead dog back to life with a blast from a lightning bolt, “Frankenweenie” is an expansive new adaptation by Tim Burton of his 1984 live-action short of the same name. Designed to appeal to both discriminating adults and older kids, the gorgeous, black-and-white stop-motion film is a fresh, clever and affectionate love letter to classic horror movies.
Warning: It is decidedly not for little children. Like Burton’s 1984 short, which famously got the filmmaker fired from Disney for being too intense for tots, “Frankenweenie” is a deliciously dark tale. At least one youngster could be heard loudly whimpering during a recent screening, begging to be taken home. The grown-ups in the audience, however, seemed to love it.
Transplanting Mary Shelley’s 19th-century story to the 1950s, “Frankenweenie” is the story of 10-year-old Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan), a bookish loner whose best friend is his dog, Sparky. After Sparky is hit by a car, a desperate, distraught Victor applies some half-remembered lessons in electricity from his slightly unhinged science teacher (Martin Landau) and reanimates the pet pooch, one dark and stormy night.
All is well until some of Victor’s classmates get wind of the secret experiment and begin resurrecting all of their dearly departed pets, too, including a hamster and some Sea-Monkeys. (It helps if you’re old enough to know what “Sea-Monkeys” -- a.k.a. brine shrimp -- even are. “Just add water,” read the old ad, which used to run in the back of comic books.) That they turn into something resembling the evil beasties from “Gremlins” is only one of several loving homages to the cinematic world of creature features. One Japanese-American kid, Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao) unleashes a Godzilla-like monster when his late pet turtle -- mischievously named Shelley -- turns into a giant, rampaging reptile.
It’s great fun.
So is the overall look of the film, which portrays Victor and everyone else in it as pallid, sunken-eyed (though lovable) ghouls. The boy who first discovers Victor’s secret is a hunchbacked kid named Edgar -- more familiarly known as “E” -- Gore (Atticus Shaffer). You have to say it out loud to get the pun.
Screenwriter John August, who worked with Burton on “Dark Shadows” and other films, fills “Frankenweenie” with lots of equally wonderful, if silly, in-jokes.
Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short vividly portray Victor’s parents, along with a variety of other characters. And as Victor’s next-door neighbor Elsa Van Helsing, Winona Ryder seems to be channeling her sardonic character from Burton’s 1988 hit “Beetlejuice.” It’s a knowing nod to a great performance, rather than a retread.
The choice here is clear. Leave “Hotel Transylvania,” and its soulless, Saturday-morning computer animation, to the wee ones. But for a touch of Saturday night sophistication, you can’t do better than “Frankenweenie.”
Contains some scary images and morbid thematic material.