Although I enjoyed Disney’s spookily themed movie Frankenweenie, watching any media production involving pets is never an escapist experience for me. My veterinary medical mind always defaults to reading into the messages being conveyed by the characters and story about the human-companion-animal bond and pet caretaking (see my Daily Vet article: How the Veterinary Profession is Portrayed by NBC’s Animal Practice).
Why do I take a serious perspective on what seems to be a fun and innocent pet themed movie primarily appealing to children? Let me further explain.
Frankenweenie is based on a 1984 short film (of the same name) created by director Tim Burton. The film’s main character, Victor, is "a boy who, inspired by science and the love of his dog, brings his beloved pet back from the dead." Sparky is Victor’s dog and the movie’s plot hinges on his Frankenstein-like resurrection after he is tragically killed.
I recently attended a Frankenweenie screening at the historic El Capitan Theater in Hollywood. Accompanying me were hundreds of 3-D glasses adorned, sugar-stimulated children. These impressionable minds are easily influenced by movie and TV images and may strive to emulate what they see. I certainly spent many hours playing out scenes from Star Wars in my youth.
Depending on what is seen, kids could inadvertently be persuaded to engage in activities promoting animal injury or illness. I feel that Disney and other major media companies shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that positive messages of proper pet care are conveyed to their audience.
Here is my perspective on the myths and truths in the messages conveyed by Frankenweenie:
Pets can be brought back to life - Myth
Navigating the murky emotional waters inhabited by the death of a beloved pet is never easy. Managing a child’s emotions certainly makes the equation more complicated. When faced with the accidental, or planned, death of a pet, being honest with yourself and your other family members is vitally important.
Your canine or feline companion is never coming back, so cherish the memories. A lightning bolt won’t resuscitate a deceased pet, which is the means by which Victor resurrected Sparky. Kids, please don’t try this at home. Additionally, I don’t advocate cloning deceased pets, as millions of animals needing adoptive homes already walk this earth.
Attaching your dog to a stationary object provides proper restraint - Myth
Being in veterinary practice, I’ve seen innumerable occasions where illness or injury has resulted from improper pet restraint. Foregoing seatbelt or carrier restraint in a car (or elsewhere when needed), and failing to closely observe your pet’s behavior in public commonly lead to undesirable consequences.
In Frankenweenie, Sparky attends Victor’s baseball game and is leashed to stationary object to stay clear of the game’s excitement. Subsequently, Sparky’s collar and leash restraint fails and he chases a ball into the path of an ongoing car. Unfortunately, Sparky dies from car associated trauma.
Pulling at a collar and leash (as also seen in dogs untrained to heel while walking), compresses the trachea (windpipe) and restricts air flow. Other structures in the neck, including the esophagus, nerves, blood and lymph vessels, and vertebral column (backbone) are also subject to damage.
Had Sparky been kept at home or better restrained in a chest harness, and under close observation by Victor’s parents, he would have survived.
Leaving your pooch unobserved promotes undesirable habits - Truth
When dogs are left to their own devices, they instinctually explore their environment and potentially get themselves into trouble. We see this happen after Sparky is brought back to life and sequestered to the attic to prevent discovery by Victor’s parents.
Unfortunately, Sparky is again fixed by his collar and leash to a stationary object (desk leg). Sparky gets free, is ultimately discovered by Victor’s mother, and escapes through an open window after Victor’s father attempts his capture.
A safer and more secure means of keeping Sparky’s presence unknown would have been to put him into an appropriately sized crate or cage.
It’s safe to directly handle animal waste with bare hands - Myth
Frankenweenie features a scene involving cat feces that sends a negative message about proper pet sanitary habits.
Weird Girl, Victor’s unusual female classmate, owns an equally peculiar cat named Mr. Whiskers. This clairvoyant kitty sends a visual representation of his foreboding dreams when he passes a bowel movement. When Mr. Whiskers dreams about Victor, his poop appears as a "V." Weird Girl holds the "V" shaped feces in her hand to convey to Victor the omen that something (bad or good) will soon happen (Sparky’s death follows).
An impressionable child could seek to imitate Weird Girl’s habits by using bare hands to remove feces from the family cat’s litter box. Direct contact with pet poop is an unsafe practice, especially for children and immune system compromised individuals. Bacterial, viral, or parasitic disease can be spread through fecal-oral transmission (a term burned into my memory during veterinary school).
Showing Mr. Whiskers’ bowel movement in a spatula style scooper would have been a better choice than having Weird Girl prominently display it in her unprotected hand.
In general, I think Disney and Burton showed remarkable imagination and animatronic execution in creating Frankenweenie. Fine tuning certain scenes to better promote pet safety and human public health would have better suited impressionable viewers.
El Capitan Theatre
Puppyrazzi animal actors section
Busco and Angel, two of the canine stars of Beverly Hills Chihuahua (Papi and Chloe, repectively)
Winona Ryder (Elsa Van Helsing, voice) at the premiere showing of Frankenweenie
Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Image: Dr. Patrick Mahaney in Hollywood for the film premiere of Disney's Frankenweenie