"Frankenweenie" is probably Tim Burton’s best film in almost a decade, but that’s not much of a compliment.
With his last five films, the filmmaker responsible for some of the most fun, mischievous and magical cinema of the past 25 years has settled into a disappointing routine of utterly safe “weirdness.”
But the reimagining of one of his earliest works into a black-and-white stop-motion adventure marks a slight return to form only because its “Burtonesque” qualities are more charming than conventional.
Victor (Charlie Tahan) is an amateur scientist and inventor whose best friend is his dog Sparky. Although his parents try to steer him towards more social activities like sports, Victor is more interested in solitary activities, especially after his teacher Mr. Ryzkruski (Martin Landau) encourages him to participate in the school science fair.
After Sparky dies in an accident, Victor secretly resurrects him using the science that Ryzkruski has taught him. But when a classmate named Edgar (Atticus Shaffer) threatens to expose him, Victor is forced to help resurrect other dead creatures – with disastrous results.
Although "Frankenweenie" expands on Burton’s earliest short, handwrought 25 years ago when he was a struggling animator on the Disney lot, Burton did not craft this script himself. The credits read “inspired by an idea by” the filmmaker; the actual writing was done by longtime collaborator John August.
Consequently, the film feels cobbled together from a collection of familiar Burton influences – Hammer horror, classic movie monsters – and some ideas that almost approximate a complete narrative. As sweetly rendered as the story of a boy and his dog is, there’s so much referential detritus in the narrative, not to mention a remarkably intense nasty streak in the third act, that much of the emotional substance of the film is overshadowed or lost altogether.
The idea of a kid losing his dog is traumatic enough, but the film piles on monster-movie scares after Victor’s later experiments go awry, and then endangers its child characters to such a degree it feels necessary to caution parents to consider how ready their kids might be to experience its thrills. Mind you, the film probably doesn’t exceed the limits of PG-rated scares, but for a film which audiences may automatically assume is kid-friendly thanks to its format, it’s pretty intense.
That said, the animation is top notch – sunlight that pours through the miniature windows reflects through the glassware on Victor’s parents’ dinner table, and it looks like there’s fleshy peach fuzz glinting off of the characters’ skin, if that’s possible. And there are some real heart-tugging moments thanks to an incredibly effective, authentic portrait of the relationship between this lonely kid and his sweet dog.
But overall, "Frankenweenie" is just a pretty good movie, which sadly enough, is a huge accomplishment compared to "Dark Shadows," "Alice in Wonderland" and other recent vintage Burton films. Let’s hope that the film’s modest achievements mark the beginning of a real creative rebirth – maybe, like the title character, all Burton needed was a little recharge.
Recent clips and featurette are here.