Theatrical Review: “Frankenweenie”
Produced by: Tim Burton, Allison Abbate
Written by: John August
Cinematography by: Peter Sorg
Music by: Danny Elfman
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Frank Welker, Winona Ryder, Cathernie O’Hara, Martin Short, martin Landau, Robert Capron, Atticus Shaffer
Based on the short Frankenweenie by Tim Burton
I’m going to say it, something that everyone’s been thinking and even saying for a while, but it bears mentioning again: Tim Burton has really lost his touch since the late 90s. Though he’s still since released some decent-to-genuinely-good films since then, none of them have been entirely original. His take on Alice in Wonderland was a garish bore, and while I truly enjoyed both Sweeney Todd and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they weren’t entirely his own material, now, were they? I think that the best thing that we can say about Frankenweenie at this point in Burton’s career is that it falls somewhere in this latter category of truly enjoyable though not entirely original material.
Based on his 1984 live action 30-minute short film (the same short film that got him fired from Disney), Frankenweenie, the film, is also about a boy, Victor Frankenstein, who loses his precious dog in an unfortunate meeting with a car. Thanks to education, however, Victor learns that electricity can make even dead animals move again, and so he’s inspired to excavate his recently deceased pet from his grave and, in a callback to the 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book, revives the dog with a bolt of lightning.
People don’t quite understand the revived creature, however, and some even fear it and demand its destruction. Cue the angry mob.
Burton throws in his usual “misunderstood outsider” storytelling, but unlike with most of his characters, Victor seems to be in a classroom specifically meant for weirdos that may be even weirder than he is — including the wide-eyed “Weird Girl” who believes her cat has visions of her friends and leaves behind the evidence in the litterbox and then the Igor-like Edgar Gore who, well, looks like Igor. This does result in Victor being the least interesting of the bunch, but I at least didn’t forget that the film was supposed to be about him, so at least the sidekicks aren’t able to completely steal the show from the stars, Victor and Sparky. These outcasts are led by a Vincent Price-like teacher named Mr. Rzykruski, who becomes quite popular with the kids thanks to his unique obsession with the dark arts known as “science.”
Yes, it’s one of those Burton films — where rural America is presented as more frightening than the monsters and weirdos they shun, some sort of cesspool of ignoramuses who consider all things they don’t understand to be inherently evil. We’ve seen this before and we’ll likely see it again, but it’s a formula that at least lends itself well to the material here, and Burton thankfully resists the urge to point fingers or unfairly single out specific crowds — it’s a blanket statement he’s making about pretty much everyone who wants one perspective shunned in favor of their own, and Frankenweenie turns the horrors of reviving a corpse on its head by pointing out, “Hey, that might not actually be such a bad thing after all…”
There are a few caveats to this, of course, and Burton thankfully addresses them through some of Victor’s less altruistic classmates. I’ll avoid spoiling it, since it’s still a relatively new movie, but the climax of the film will be fun for kids who can handle some scary moments and for adults who get all the references. Said references are nicely mixed in with the story without ever feeling too much like Burton is stooping to winking at the audience by saying “Hey, look! You know this!” at every given opportunity.
I did mention that there were scary parts, and for an animated family flick, this movie is easily for the more mature crowd. If you think your kid can handle being frightened every now and then in the theatre without having to be asked to leave, then you should have a good time. If the kid is fairly sensitive to jump scares, freaky creatures, or even just straight up characters in peril, then you might want to pass.
The movie is presented in complete black and white, which I admire, and it is great to look at, feeling a bit like an animated, black and white version of Edward Scissorhands, so you’ll probably want to come back and watch it by yourself sometime if your kid isn’t up to seeing it with you. I didn’t get a chance to see it in 3D, but it probably couldn’t hurt, either. As for the score, it’s a standard Danny Elfman/Tim Burton collaboration, so adjust expectations accordingly — satisfyingly matches the atmosphere of the art direction, but no longer unique.
Story-wise, it’s rather mediocre, with a love interest sidestory that doesn’t go anywhere at all, but the additional material padding out the story to feature length involving the classmates’ science experiments is entertaining. The ending, I felt, could’ve said more about the loss of a beloved pet with a few tweaks, but I do realize that the way I would’ve made it likely wasn’t what was being aimed for, so, you know, what do I know? This standard fare is elevated by decent performances from the cast and the fun character designs, with stop motion animation that’s not exactly smooth or even particularly expressive — save for the dog, Sparky, who is pretty cute and lovably dog-like, even when his parts keep falling off — but I get the feeling that was kind of the intention.
Overall, I liked Frankenweenie more than I thought I would, but it doesn’t particularly seem like a film that will become an annual favorite in the same way that The Nightmare Before Christmas did for both of the respective holidays it represents, and the pay off in the end doesn’t have nearly the same level of emotional impact that ParaNorman does by the conclusion, either. However, it’s the first Tim Burton film in a while that I felt compelled to go see, so it had that going for it. It doesn’t have the bright colors, hyperactivity, and buzz-worthy voice cast of Hotel Transylvania (heck, there are long stretches of no dialogue at all, which is refreshing), nor the technical spark, maturity, or distinct style of ParaNorman (If you’ve seen Nightmare or Corpse Bride, you know what to expect), but, all things considered, it is solid, mostly-family-friendly entertainment for Halloween.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 3 / 5