Tim Burton is one of those love-him-or-hate-him types of directors. Some people argue that he’s doing the same thing over and over again and his frequent collaborations with Johnny Depp are growing stale, while others argue that their dark, Gothic visuals and creepy atmosphere feel just right. I suppose I'm in the latter group. His bizarre, otherworldly imagination has managed to create some unique characters and settings that instantly stand out and I’ve always been fascinated by what he conjures up, to the point where I would live in the world of Corpse Bride or Edward Scissorhands if I could. I’ve been a Burton apologist for years, despite a few stumbles (the less said about his ill-advised 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, the better), but I can’t get behind his latest, Frankenweenie, a stop motion remake of his 1984 live action short of the same name. At first glance, it looks like more of what we love (or hate) about Burton—his dark sensibilities, morbid humor and fascination with death are all prominent—but it lacks creativity and care. After ParaNorman so beautifully nailed similar material earlier this year, Frankenweenie just feels kind of lazy.
In Burton’s homage to classic monster movies, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) has no friends. His only real companion is his dog, Sparky, whom he loves dearly. He does nearly everything with him, which prompts his father (voiced by Martin Short) to convince him to take part in an extracurricular activity: baseball. While practicing one day, Victor sends a ball flying out of the park and into the road. Sparky, as most dogs would do, breaks free from his leash and goes chasing it. Unfortunately, this leads to his demise. Victor is crushed, but when he learns from his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau), how electricity can animate corpses, he digs up Sparky and performs an experiment. Next thing he knows, Sparky is up and about, but his resurrection ends up causing problems for the town, not the least of which come from Victor’s classmates, who see this opportunity as a way to win the upcoming school science fair.
The idea behind Frankenweenie isn’t a particularly interesting one: pay homage to classic monster movies, specifically Frankenstein, except set it in 1940’s suburbia and make it a reassembled dog instead of a person. This thin concept played out surprisingly well in 1984, mainly due to the short’s 30 minute runtime, but expanding on the concept in a meaningful way has proven to be a difficult venture. Although rough around the edges, no doubt due to Burton’s lack of directorial experience at the time, that short managed to work on a more relatable level and focused on the simple story of the love between a boy and his dog—almost like a more twisted version of Marley & Me. This animated remake tries to retain that quality, but squanders it by going over the rails in the back half of the picture. It transitions from that simple, but effective, boy and his dog tale to a monster movie amalgamation, which ups the excitement, but strips away the meaning. Unfortunately for the movie, the latter is far more important than the former.
There are a few interesting nods to past genre movies, including Sparky’s female companion, who is zapped with enough electricity to create a couple of white streaks in her hair, à la the Bride of Frankenstein, and a character named Edgar (voiced by Atticus Shaffer), who is essentially the standard “Igor” character, complete with hissing voice and hunchback, but the majority of the movie plays it too safe. For the first half of the film or so, it follows so closely to Burton’s original short that it fails to find a voice of its own, instead opting to recreate certain scenes and shots down to the letter. The original was limited due to budget and time constraints, so its occasional rough patch was understandable, but here, the sky’s the limit. With animation, what you can do is limited only to your imagination, but Frankenweenie has a surprising lack of it.
Although a pretty lackluster picture on its own, this is, of course, in comparison to August’s brilliant ParaNorman, a movie that managed to include scares, laughs, emotion, beauty and genre references—all of which Frankenweenie strives for as well—and did it in a unique and satisfying way. To top it all off, that movie had a wonderful message about tolerance and being yourself in the face of adversity. Frankenweenie tells that if someone or something they love dies, you can just bring it back to life, an irresponsible message if ever there was one. It may keep the kids in the audience happy as the credits roll, but it will ultimately create an unhealthy confusion by the very notion of death.
Few movies accessible to children have the guts to make death a central theme. This does and then squanders an opportunity to say something about it. Although the animation is solid and the black and white visuals are both striking and contextually fitting, Frankenweenie’s story and themes are a mess. It’s a blunder that worked relatively well in a more focused half hour form, but feels exhausted at 87 minutes. If not for Planet of the Apes, it would be the absolute worst thing Tim Burton has ever done. If doesn’t matter if your view of the man is positive or borderline contemptible. Frankenweenie is a horrible failure either way.
Frankenweenie receives 1/5