Lately, we’ve been blessed with an embarrassment of animated riches at our area multiplexes, particularly if your tastes lean a bit toward classic horror and contemporary scares. Kids seeking goofy laughs likely found them in Adam Sandler’s Hotel Transylvania
. Parents wanting to expose their older kids to sophisticated scares sought them out in the stop-motion animated ParaNorman
This week, families actually can find both in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie
, the feature-length take on the director’s early short that goes the stop-motion animation route and returns the storyteller to his gleefully macabre roots. As we’ve discussed in past columns
, though, Burton’s gothic tastes could be a little too mature for your kids. (Hint: Don’t select Sweeney Todd
for Family Movie Night.)
But I want you to check out Frankenweenie, and I think your kids can get a lot out of it. So, let’s dig up the family pet, win the science fair, battle a dinosaur-sized turtle and figure out when you can watch Frankenweenie with your kids.
Green Lights: “Even after death, the wiring remains.”
Frankenweenie, in case you didn’t already know, is the Frankenstein tale filtered through Burton’s unique prism. It’s set in a recognizable Burton suburb (artificial, in other words), where Victor’s interest in science has his parents worried for their introverted son. At their encouragement, he tries out for the neighborhood baseball team, applying concept meant for his pending science-fair project to the mechanics needed to hit a home run.
And hit a home run, he does. Only Vincent’s beloved dog, Sparky, chases the baseball into the street, and meets an untimely death at the wheels of a passing automobile.
But more on that in the Red Flags section.
Frankenweenie deserves credit for shining a spotlight on knowledge, science, creativity and ingenuity. When Victor hears his teacher saying the quote mentioned in the subhed, he cooks up a macabre solution that involves reanimating his beloved pet. And for the rest of the film, Victor’s classmates – eager to get a leg up on him in the class science fair – attempt to copy his methods and bring their own pets back from the dead.
Morbid? Yes, but also original because it keeps the focus on smart (and decidedly offbeat) children applying their brains to solve emotional issues. There’s even a sequence where Victor’s teacher – who looks exactly like Vincent Price – encourages the young student to grow up and be a scientist, because the world needs more educated leaders. It’s a wonderful message to shoehorn into a kiddie horror flick.
“It worked! It really worked!” Victor proclaims when his experiment succeeds. And Frankenweenie, in its own way, pays tribute to problem solving. Just make sure your kids are well aware that Victor’s lightning-rod experiment wouldn’t work, and that digging the family pet out of the ground is generally frowned upon.
The final act of Frankenweenie
, meanwhile, is a throwback to monster movies of Burton’s past, with imaginative creatures descending on the small town of New Holland’s annual carnival, forcing Victor and Sparky to figure out a way to reverse their scientific equation. The stop-motion actually adds new life to the story. The black and white lends Frankenweenie
a nostalgic sheen. And while this probably won’t serve as an introduction to other Burton films, it can set the stage for Joe Dante’s Gremlins
or Fred Dekker’s masterful The Monster Squad
… similar films with adolescent heroes finding the courage to fight back against the perils of the horror genre.
How perilous? Let’s explore in this week’s Red Flags section.
Red Flags: “He was a great dog.”
“Was” being the key word there.
The largest red flag associated with Frankenweenie also happens to be the movie’s reason for existing. Beloved pooch Sparky has to die for Victor to even come up with the idea of his resurrection experiment, and the film will affect kids who might have had recent difficulties over the loss of a pet. Not that Burton revels in the accident that claims Sparky’s life. It’s quick, and handled offscreen. But Sparky does die chasing Victor’s home run, generating some possible misplaced blame on our young hero (and the kids watching from the audience).
Later in the film, we see that almost all of Victor’s classmates have had to place a beloved animal in the pet cemetery at one point … mainly because they all come back when science goes awry. But that’s part of Burton’s twisted fun.
The most important thing to point out about Frankenweenie is that it isn’t too scary for young kids – a note of caution I had to apply to ParaNorman, which -- I thought – set its sights on older kids. Walt Disney partners with Burton on Frankenweenie for a reason. It’s as family friendly an adventure as we’ve seen from the storyteller since Edward Scissorhands. Heck, Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory feels more demented and strange than Frankenweenie.
Frankenweenie’s ideal entertainment for your average six year old, particularly one who has absorbed Scooby-Doo episodes and doesn’t mind an earnest scare every once in a while.
Burton’s animated thriller shines a welcome spotlight on science and knowledge, with a whip-smart, lonely hero who just wants his canine best friend to stick around a while longer. And the final act is a flurry of fun monster-movie clichés that should have your kids bouncing in their seats. The 3D is unnecessary, as it dims the beautiful black-and-white cinematography. This ranks as one of Burton’s most purely entertaining movies in years, a throwback to his simple stories of monster-movie adoration. Take your kids and enjoy!
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That with My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Hugo, The Princess Bride, The Monster Squad and Elf, to name just a few.