Frankenweenie: A Gorgeously Melancholic Horror Movie for Kids

POSTED: October 16, 2012

Frankenweenie poster

Only Tim Burton can direct a movie where “horror” and “kids” can stand side by side in the same sentence without screams or buckets of blood oozing out of the walls. Frankenweenie is special treat that will delight young and old alike, a horror movie for beginners made with love. To get a good kid perspective on the movie, I took my 7- and 9-year olds as well as an 8-year old friend – 3 girls who each had different sensitivities to the scare factor, 3 girls who each came out with a different opinion on the movie. As soon as we were out, my 9-year old paused on the sidewalk and asked, ”Mom, can you really bring pets back to life with electricity?” She viewed the movie not as a horror movie but as a pet love story movie with a dog as a hero. My pragmatic 7-year old concluded that you shouldn’t play with electricity and that you should steer clear of lightnings just in case. The 8-year-old friend said a Sparky at home would be nice. Following the main lines of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frankenweenie is a melancholic perspective on the death of a loved one – and the question of letting go – jazzed up with classic horror movie characters and scenes.

The Plot

In suburban New Holland, Victor Frankenstein is a loner kid who prefers conducting science experiments in his parents’ attic rather than playing outside with normal kids. His only friend is his dog Sparky who follows him everywhere. When the new Eastern European science teacher mentions the science fair projects, all the school kids start thinking about winning the prize. Victor is thrilled about this teacher who talks about lightning and electricity with unrestrained passion, but the boy is uninspired for his science project until fatality strikes. After Victor strikes a home run during a baseball game, Sparky runs to catch the ball and gets hit by a car. With Sparky dead, Victor feels even more isolated and desperately wants Sparky back. Enters the crazy mad science teacher who shows the kids how electricity can make a dead frog’s body react. Could electricity bring Sparky back? That night, Victor successfully reanimates Sparky but things go sour when his secret is spread among the other kids who decide to reanimate their dead pets to win the science fair project.

No, I can’t tell you the rest.

How the Kids Liked It

During the movie I kept a close eye on my crew and though they took shelter behind their cupped hands a few times, they laughed at all the jokes and smiled at Sparky’s doggy love. Mostly I was afraid that they’d be afraid but I was wrong. Was it scary? I asked my girls over the next couple days and they said yes, a little bit but mostly it was sad. Sad isn’t bad though, sad is just a different feeling and despite it being sad, they tremendously enjoyed the story. They all thought that Sparky was a really cute dog and that they would love a Sparky at home.

Not once did they mention anything about the movie being in black and white which I found interesting because black and white is so absent from family movies nowadays. However judging by their reaction and a few other echoes, I don’t think it should be a problem with other kids either. It is such an integral part of the story’s atmosphere that you wouldn’t imagine the movie any differently. Indeed, with so may nods to classic horror movies Tim Burton grew up with, black and white seems to be the best choice to follow young Victor’s adventures.

In Victor’s class alone, you find kid-size replicas of horror movie characters such as a young Boris Karloff, a hunchback, and a weirdo girl who never blinks. Victor’s neighbor is the mayor whose niece is called Elsa Van Helsing – does that ring a vampire-slayer bell or what? In a fair scene, one of the kids finds himself wrapped up in a Russian nesting doll box just like a mummy. Unless children have a solid horror movie culture – which I very much doubt – all these allusions are pure cult movie candy for the accompanying adults and that’s where the genius of the movie is. It can be viewed differently from a child perspective and from an adult perspective.

Take the science fair experiments. As adults, science experiments are a distant memory. For kids, science experiments are part of school life and a way to explore the unknown world of chemical reactions, physics and biology. Being 7 and 9, my girls are naturally curious of science and how things work. This movie really talked to their imagination. Can you really bring a dead dog back to life? What else can you do with electricity? Is lightning good or bad? Can we have a science lab upstairs?

They had a lot of questions and I tried to answer as best I could but mostly I enjoyed listening to their crazy theories when they replied to each other in kid-friendly terms. When a child asks lots of questions after a movie (or a book or a painting), it’s a great sign because it means something clicked and Frankenweenie did that. It may even have inspired them in different ways. My 9-year old just spent the last two days painting a card for my upcoming birthday. When I couldn’t figure out what it was she said, it’s a monster. Aha. Yes, but it’s a good monster, look at the wings. I don’t know if that came from Frankenweenie but it’s the first time she creates a winged monster as a birthday card for me.

One last note in the child department. The movie is only 87 minutes long. Finally a family movie that appeals to adult audiences and doesn’t last 2 hours! I really appreciated that and thought it was just the right length.

How I Liked It

What I can say, I love Tim Burton and everything he does and this was as much fun or more than The Nightmare before Christmas. It had hysterical jokes, plays on words, cult movie nods, surreal situations, parents who understand their kid and a quick-thinking genius boy who saves his town from disaster. If you grew up with The Gremlins like me, you will have a blast with the devilish and slimy sea monkeys who wreak havoc at the New Holland fair. The movie was fun and I admit I did shed a few tears at the end.

Beyond the story, I loved the masterful craft of a stop-motion animated movie where each single character was animated by hand on hand-made sets. It is a work of art and I hope that people appreciate it for that as well as a unique movie.

On that note, I’m waiting to hear what you thought of Frankenweenie. What did you think?

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