I’ll admit than when I saw the trailer for Frankenweenie, I was cautiously enthusiastic. When it comes to upcoming films (and videogames… any media, I guess) I try not to get too hyped about them, because that makes the bitter sting of disappointment that much greater when things don’t pan out. In this editor’s opinion, Tim Burton hasn’t made a great film since Big Fish (2003). Now, put down the pitchforks, I said great, several are still good films, just not great. Perhaps coming from another director my expectations wouldn’t be as high, but I’ve always been a fan of Burton, especially his earlier works, such as Beetlejuice (1988), Batman (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), and though he didn’t direct it, the very much Burton film The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). His newer offerings, such as Alice in Wonderland (2010), Corpse Bride (2005), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) have all had amazing visual style, but are simply lacking enough of the typical Burton charm to elevate them from being decent films to being amazing. Corpse Bride was especially disappointing to me in this regard, because I’m such a fan of stop-motion, and Corpse Bride looked amazing, but the story / writing was simply lacking any memorable impact.
But enough about disappointments, Frankenweenie is a return to form for Tim Burton. From the opening shots of a suburban sprawl (heavily echoing that of Edward Scissorhands) to the character designs that immediately bring to mind his other stop-motion works, this is a film that feels like something the director would have made at the early stages of his career. Perhaps that’s because it is, in a way, because it’s based on a live-action short Burton did in 1984 by the same name (a short that was supposed to be released alongside the Pinocchio (1940) re-release, but was pulled by Disney because it disturbed children at test screenings).
The plot is fairly straightforward; Victor (Charlie Tahan) is an introverted boy who likes to make movies, his only real friend is his dog, Sparky. Victor’s suburban town of New Holland is populated by a suitably bizarre cast of characters, from a girl whose cat (named Mr. Whiskers) apparently leaves prophecies in the litter box, to the new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). Unfortunately for Victor, Sparky is hit by a car, and Victor’s solution to his grief is to bring him back in tried-and-true Frankenstein (1931) fashion. He is, of course, successful, but must hide his resurrected friend from his friends and parents (voiced by Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short). This all goes awry when his secret is discovered by his classmate, Edgar ‘E’ Gore (Atticus Shaffer), who demands to know how he’s managed to cheat death, and Victor concedes, with the stipulation that no one can know. Naturally, with the big science fair around the corner, Edgar can’t resist telling other students, which leads to a chaotic, horror-film-inspired third act.
This might be the best part of the film, which has nods to Gamera (1994) and Gremlins (1984) amongst others. In fact, the entire film is chock full of horror references; the storyline itself loosely follows that of Frankenstein, the parents are watching a Dracula film (voiced by Christopher Lee) in one scene, the poodle next door ends up looking like the Monster’s Bride from Bride of Frankenstein (1931), a model in one of Victor’s films looks almost exactly like Rodan from the 1956 film of the same name… I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s clear that Frankenweenie is Tim Burton’s homage to the films that inspired him in his youth, and perhaps Frankenweenie is his pseudo-biography in stop-motion form.
Frankenweenie’s only major flaw is perhaps its pacing, the time period between Sparky’s resurrection and the action-packed third act feels too slow for the events that precede and follow it, despite the fact that it contains more or less vital plot points. Despite this, the film is still a very enjoyable watch, and has plenty of humor to go along with its somewhat dark subject matter. As a matter of fact, I could easily see very young children being scared of this film, and it’s almost surprising that they got away with a PG rating, though in comparison to many films from the 80’s and 90’s a PG rating isn’t that far out of the question, political correctness be damned.
In summation, Frankenweenie does have problems here and there, but all the different parts are stitched together in such a way as to make the first Tim Burton film in a long time that really feels like it belongs to the director, as opposed to something that seems like he was talked into at a studio board meeting. If you long for Burton’s glory days, Frankenweenie just might fit the bill.