Victor Frankenstein is just your average little boy living in a black and white world who resurrects his dog from the dead. Ok, maybe he isn't so average and neither is the movie. It's the best thing Tim Burton has slapped his name on in years.
Review Score: 3
For far too long Tim Burton has been dedicating his energies entirely to Hollywood’s never ending remake business. Ever since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, every movie the man slapped his name on was a redo of a childhood favorite like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Alice In Wonderland, or (most disastrously) Planet Of The Apes. It’s been a tough experience for Burton fans who have seen his filmmaking interests dwindle down entirely to design choices as the features have become increasingly sanitized. That’s not to say that Burton was once a master storyteller. He’s always been a style over substance guy, but at least in his heyday movies like Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas at least had some personal thematic resonance, a pleasing darkness, and a love of outsiders. Thankfully, Burton’s latest stop-motion animation feature Frankenweenie brings back the 80s version of Burton that has been gone for far too long. Granted, it’s not one of his greatest achievements and the guy had to remake one of his own movies to find his old voice, but at this point disappointed former Burtonites will take what they can get.
Frankenweenie began its life as a 30 minute short that Burton whipped up as a struggling Disney employee in 1984 starring Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall. It was supposed to play in front of the company’s latest animated feature, but was dubbed too dark. It was shoved into the Disney vaults and soon he was fired. Then Burton went and became a famous director and Disney welcomed him back to finally make the Nightmare Before Christmas project he nursed along through all his wasted years in the house of mouse and they plopped Frankenweenie onto VHS for good measure. The short became something of a cult favorite amongst fans, a combination parody/homage to 30s Universal monster movies and a personal tale about a boy losing a dog. This new feature-length edition retains that material at its heart while expanding things out slightly into more of a blockbuster.
The film is still primarily about a pint-sized Victor Frankenstein resurrecting his old dog Sparky from the grave to the chagrin of a suburban community who have a surprising number of pitchforks and torches on hand. However, the community is a little larger including a creepy mad science teacher/mentor (Martin Landau) for Victor, a love interest named Val Helsing (Winona Ryder), a weird bug eyed classmate who reads the future in her cat’s poop (Catherine O’Hara), and others. The biggest addition comes in the form of two competitive classmates who decide to beat Victor at the science fair with their own resurrected animals, but go a step to far and create giant monsters for an action packed finale straight out of a Godzilla movie. As a result, Frankenweenie is no longer a straight Frankenstein homage. Now it’s a gateway drug for kids of all ages into the magical world of classic monster movies. The spectacle definitely dilutes the personal sense of childhood loss, but at least that’s still there and the final monster mash action scenes are worth the sacrifice.
Frankenweenie 2.0 is more about pure stylish fun than anything else. It’s not as good as the original, yet it’s still good enough to be the best thing to come out of Burton’s billion dollar making brain since Sweeney Todd. The stop motion animation is astounding, with the bubble-headed thin-limbed character designs Burton has been playing with for years. The designs of the dog itself are reminiscent of the long-forgotten Burton TV series Family Dog (made in collaboration with writer/director Brad Bird who would go on to make The Incredibles and Ratatouille for Pixar). Like that show, the dog feels like a surprisingly genuine canine despite the neckbolts and exaggerated design. All the characters fall into Burton’s distinct brand of larger-than-life movie types and introverted outsiders, with the voice actors (particularly SCTV vets Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara, who play multiple roles) creating lovingly surreal characterizations to match the designs. It all comes together surprisingly well with brisk pacing, just enough substance to squeeze by, and some 3D effects that actually add more to the movie than the additional $5 to the ticket price.
Much like the pleasant late summer surprise Paranorman, Frankenweenie offers an ideal introduction to horror for children that provides safe scares within an amusing little monster story. The release is perfectly timed for Halloween and kids should eat it up. Old school Burton fans shouldn’t miss it either. This thing shows flashes of the filmmaker we used to love and hopefully it’s a sign that he’ll be giving up the remakes to go back to making off-key personal populist movies. The first Frankenweenie was the movie that defined the Burton aesthetic and started his cult. Let’s hope the second one is the sign of a new chapter in his career. It’s hard to imagine he could possibly need to make much more money after the parade of bland hits over the 2000s. Let’s jus hope that he’s still got a few passion projects left to squeeze out instead. We’ll find out soon enough and for the first time in years, there is some hope that this guy might have a little of the old magic left in him.
The gorgeous childhood gothic design, the surreal characters, the action-packed monster mash finale, and the sweet center about childhood loss.
Burton has literally been here before. Now he's literally remaking his own movies. Let's hope he's still got a few original ideas left.