I really wish I could say I enjoyed Frankenweenie more than I did. Oh sure, I enjoyed parts of it. Some of them a lot. But the film, a retelling of Frankenstein, this time with a boy that brings his dog back from the dead, felt flat in terms of design and storytelling. In preparing this review, it definitely felt jumbled and a bit hard to edit, maybe because the film itself is such a mixed bag.
Frankenweenie is the second animated feature directed by Tim Burton after Corpse Bride. (Nightmare Before Christmas was produced by Burton, but directed by the highly talented Henry Selick; a fact I was yelling at the TV during a poorly fact-checked episode of the short-lived Trivial Pursuit game show a few years back.) It is also a remake of a live-action short he directed very early in his career and as an expansion of the short it isn’t unsuccessful. The new material definitely takes advantage of the animated medium that it has transitioned to. I’m a little curious why Sparky, the dog of the title, is a sculpted recreation of Burton’s work on Brad Bird’s Family Dog from Amazing Stories instead of a dachshund, like the title would imply. But let’s chalk that up to artistic lisence. It also relies heavily in design on nostalgia for his early stop-motion efforts like Vincent that have been included on issuances of Nightmare Before Christmas DVDs as bonus features. Unfortunately I’ve never found that particular phase of his design work to be as interesting as many of his fans and because of the drawbacks of that style, the figures used in the stop motion are sometimes a bit too simplified and stiff to really be expressive. Sometimes they come across like better animated Rankin-Bass puppets.
The voice cast also reflects this longing for his early career as much of it is made up of people from those films. Martin Short (Mars Attacks) in multiple roles, Catherine O’Hara (Beetlejuice), Winona Ryder (Edward Scissorhands) and the standout of the piece, Martin Landau (Ed Wood), who puts on his best bad Eastern European accent while telling parents at a PTA meeting that his teaching method for their children involves wanting to “crack their heads open to get at their brains.”
Part of the problem of Frankenweenie is that the new material starts out with a theme, science as a positive force in the world that should be looked at with fascination instead of fear, and that theme is completely lost in a science-run-amok finale that seems to negate it. Burton seems so eager to throw together his influences that he doesn’t really come up with a clear idea what story he’s telling, except for that familiar Disney chestnut, “love is good.” There is definitely some fun stuff here; obvious homage to the James Whale Franenstein films, a rather direct reference to everyone’s favorite turtle, Gamera, and some footage of Christopher Lee as Dracula from one of his Hammer films (I guess Burton is determined to get him into every one of his films in one way or another) but as we’ve seen in a lot of today’s media, simple homage does not make classic entertainment. If all Tarantino had were his riffs on his favorite films, there wouldn’t be much to him. This film is particularly strange because it almost seems like the bulk of what constitutes original material is made up of references to his own early work; the suburbs being the focal point of a sparse hell of ignorant and stupid people in which sports equals death and wow, why didn’t all these people understand my tortured, artistic childhood psyche?
One way Frankenweenie surprised me was just how dark and gross some of the gags were. I hesitate to reveal what they are, but for a PG-rated movie, a few of them had me squirming. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, I suppose I would have to leave to the individual, but personally while some of them made me guffaw, some of them just made me kind of queasy. I suppose it’s all about the context of stop-motion’s inherent creepy factor since several of them wouldn’t have been out of place in Ren and Stimpy and wouldn’t have raised my eyebrows as much. Granted, I’m the last person that needs to comment about content given my rants about how much children’s entertainment and ‘family movies’ have been watered down.
It’s been a rough year for Burton in my eyes. Dark Shadows was one of the weakest films I saw in 2012. (Though it’s true I have mostly gone to things that I knew I was predisposed to. It’s the one advantage of not being paid to do what I do; to quote James Mason in Journey to the Center of the Earth, “That’s my consolation, Madame. I don’t have to look at it.”) While Frankenweenie was not a great film in my eyes, I do hope it marks a return of Burton to the projects of a more personal nature which I have enjoyed from him. While he’s always run hot and cold, I’ve liked several of his films over the years. His output over the last decade has undoubtedly been disappointing for a lot of us. Alice in Wonderland was a bloated mess. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was uninspired. If this project helps Burton return to his roots and reexplore what brought him to prominence as a filmmaker in the first place, maybe it’s worth it.
(Two and a half Damns out of five)