A boy defies nature and common sense to bring back his beloved dog from the dead in Frankenweenie, Tim Burton’s remake of his own 1984 short film. Sometimes it’s better to let sleeping dogs lie.
WARNING: MAY CONTAIN CREEPY, SPOOKY (BUT MILD) SPOILERS! OOHHH…!!!
Young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) is an eccentric boy, an aspiring filmmaker whose best friend is his loyal dog Sparky. When Sparky is hit by a car, Victor is inconsolable and decides to take nature into his own hands after hearing his science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) discuss the effect of electricity on dead tissue. Sure enough, Victor is able to resurrect Sparky but must keep him hidden from his parents (Catherine O’Hara and Martin Short) and the rest of the town of New Holland to avoid a panic. However, the news gets out and soon the town is overrun by mutated animals back from the dead thanks to Victor’s curious but unwise classmates trying to duplicate his experiment.
The original Frankenweenie was a 30-minute short film Tim Burton made while still employed at Disney. Intended as a companion to the re-release of Pinocchio, the results got him fired for wasting company resources on a project deemed too dark for children. After Burton became a household name, Disney quickly changed its mind, eventually agreeing to let Burton develop a new, expanded version. While the original was an eccentrically charming, but ultimately innocuous trifle, Burton’s remake is a plodding, pandering mess whose charm comes out only in short bursts…and, oddly enough, is much darker than its predecessor.
Kids: don’t try this at home.
The phrase “a film by Tim Burton” immediately conjures up a number of images and tropes, and Burton doesn’t bother to challenge any of those here. At times, it almost feels like Burton is satirizing his own style, but more often than not it feels like a pale imitation. Burton’s recent works—including his last collaboration with Disney, 2010’s Alice in Wonderland—have come off as works-for-hire, and for a director of Burton’s calibre to seem leashed by a studio in such a way is oddly disconcerting. Given the fact that neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter show up in any way during the film’s runtime further makes it seem less like an actual Tim Burton film and more like what someone thinks a Tim Burton film should look like.
All of the creative forces in the film have done better work, from Burton to composer Danny Elfman to screenwriter John August. Burton and Elfman are responsible for some of the most iconic and beloved genre moments of the past 30 years, while August has written not only for several of Burton’s films, but also wrote and directed the highly-underrated mind-bender The Nines. It seems a very odd time for all of them to phone it in, especially given Burton’s long, presumably strong devotion to the material.
Awww…who’s an unholy thing returned from the grave, then?
A large part of the film’s problem comes from its length. At 30 minutes, the original only had to tell a brief story, no more than a fable. Its lack of plot was an asset, helping to make it an uncomplicated but endearing experience. Adding an extra 60 minutes of time and tripling the cast, but keeping the same amount of plot, only makes the film seem bloated and leaden. The film is full of unnecessary details and flourishes, only occasionally recalling the unforced charm of the original. These become especially egregious during the final act, which descends into a sea of disjointed kid-movie action sequences and gratuitous shout-outs to classic horror films.
Another big part of the problem is the visual style. The black-and-white palette Burton uses serves the film well, as it did in the original short, however the stop-motion animation is technically amazing but lacks the tactile soul of similar films like Coraline or even stop-motion-inspired CGI films like ParaNorman. Several of the character designs border on the truly grotesque, leaping from “ugly but adorable” to simply “hideous.” Victor and his family appear welcoming enough, as does Victor’s neighbor Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder), and Sparky is endearingly rough, but the rest of the cast comes off either as awkward as Japanese actors in rubber suits, or as obvious and lazy knock-offs of Jhonen Vasquez‘s comic book miscreants (especially in the case of one of Victor’s bizarre classmates identified only as “Weird Girl”). On top of that, the 3D visuals of the film are poorly designed and almost entirely without merit, existing only to pad Disney’s bank account.
Fun for the whole family at a $5 surcharge each.
The voice actors themselves do fine, if unremarkable work. Nobody is particularly bad, but nobody is particularly good, either. The Frankensteins are a simple, mostly unemotional lot, but Charlie Tahan, Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara still manage to inject some basic humanity and heart into their roles. Winona Ryder’s morose, gothy Elsa is essentially a repeat of her breakout role as Lydia Deetz in Burton’s Beetlejuice, but that’s a welcome thing. Of the supporting cast, only Martin Landau makes much of a positive impression, but this probably has more to do with Mr. Ryzkruski’s resemblance to a funhouse-mirror Vincent Price than anything else.
Sadly, the rest of the cast is made of the afore-mentioned grotesqueries, and the unpleasantness extends to almost the entirety of each character. Most of Victor’s classmates, who all seem to have it out for him in one way or another, speak in exaggerated accents in the belief that exaggerated accents are inherently funny and not at all offensive or stereotypical. This is particularly acute in James Hiroyuki Liao‘s Toshiaki, a wicked-smart Asian baseball player who’s only slightly less progressive than Avenue Q‘s Christmas Eve and speaks in the Yellow Menace voice of one of George Lucas’ Trade Federation villains. Since Victor and Sparky disappear for inexplicably long periods of time during the film, we’re left only with a collection of characters that are simply unpleasant to be around.
He’s a kind and loving authority figure.
The film’s ultimate undoing is its inconsistency and self-contradictory nature. One of the primary themes is Victor’s devotion to his dog. The scenes of Victor and Sparky together reveal a heart that’s seemingly absent in every other part of the film, but there is a disturbing amount of violence directed toward other animals with a few especially distasteful anti-feline moments. Victor is told to move on when Sparky dies, but once he brings Sparky back, that sentiment is dropped almost entirely, and the true implications of screwing with the natural order are never adequately addressed. Mr. Ryzkruski seems to be in the film only to deliver a passionate pro-science speech to the rather ignorant citizens of New Hollow, but this is undercut by the fact that lightning never seems to work the same way twice and does whatever Burton and August want it to do.
What could have been a delightfully offbeat, darkly quirky riff on horror films, kid’s cinema and the “boy and his dog” plot is instead a lazy, disappointing slog. The added hour of film lacks any of the charm of the original, and most of the characters and events exist only to make obvious, telegraphed jokes; Elsa’s poodle Persephone is only around to a mildly amusing Bride of Frankenstein reference. Weighed down by Disney’s unending hunger for marketing and Burton’s increasingly diminishing creative returns, this Frankenweenie seems less like a pet project and more like a cynical merchandising exercise. Victor toyed with the natural order to bring his dog back from the dead, and Burton has similarly toyed with the cinematic order by revisiting a film that was fine just the way it was.
Rating: 4 out of 10 / C-
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and welcomes your angry comments below.