Tim Burton’s career is a story of contradictions. When he attempts adapting other people’s material (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Batman,” “Planet of the Apes”) he consistently finds immense financial success, although considerably less on the critical front. His more personal and original material (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Beetlejuice,” “Ed Wood”) find much more love in the people that see them, but are also less commercially popular than the adaptations. This is a shame, as these movies display his clear passion for filmmaking and the story that most of the adaptations don’t always show. “Frankenweenie” joins those movies of his that I will gladly encourage others to see because few seem to be taking notice of it.
The film is actually an animated, feature length remake of a live action short that Burton created before his filmic career took off. Science whiz Victor Frankenstein (the film is unashamed about taking names from classic horror characters) is a bit of a loner boy at his school whose best friend is his dog Sparky. When Sparky is accidently run over by a car, it deals a heavy blow to Victor. While watching his science teacher perform an experiment at school, Victor gets the idea to perform the same experiment on Sparky and bring him back to life. The procedure works and the two reunite, but now Victor has to deal with hiding his reanimated pet from jealous students and others who “wouldn’t understand.”
In a way, I don’t blame people who may have become weary of Burton. As a director with a career that spans over 25 years, he has never really stepped too far out of his bag of gothic tricks. The majority of his films have displayed a similar and consistent (some would say tired) visual style with dark art direction and actors often caked in white makeup. “Frankenweenie” most likely won’t deter the naysayers, as anyone who has seen “Corpse Bride” or the Burton-produced “Nightmare Before Christmas” will be familiar with the stop-motion animation being employed here. As someone who hasn’t become fatigued with his work (even though his recent work can be uneven in quality,) I thoroughly enjoyed “Frankenweenie” a lot. Much like the recent “Paranorman,” it is an animated film with an obvious love for the horror genre. But while “Paranorman” was an adoration for the zombie and slasher movies, “Frankenweenie” is more concerned with the lore of the more classic horror monsters. Much of the plot mirrors that of “Frankenstein,” and there are many other elements and nods throughout to “Dracula,” “The Mummy,” and “The Invisible Man.”
Not to be limited to just the old fashioned creatures, Burton goes all out in the finale and envisions a climax worthy of the giant monster movies like “Godzilla,” and he even sneaks in a “Gremlins” bit that had me cackling with laughter. The stop-motion work is absolutely stellar in this sequence with its flawlessly smooth movement and creative designs, and the fact that it’s done in black and white further fits it in with the old-school atmosphere that Burton wants to recreate.
All that technical work would be all for naught though if we didn’t feel attached the characters, and Burton’s care for them shines throughout. A criticism I often have of Burton’s adaptations is that his heart doesn’t seem all that in them (“Planet of the Apes” and “Alice in Wonderland” especially), and this is thankfully not the case here. The relationship between Victor and Sparky is heartfelt and genuine, and even the scenes with just Sparky wandering around on his own are effective thanks to the subtle animation expressions on his face and the playful sense of mischievous humor that Burton fans should be familiar with.
While I like “Frankenweenie” a great deal and think it’s really good, I think it just stops short of true greatness due to a couple factors. The biggest issue is the middle section of the story after Sparky is revived, where Burton and writer John August seem unsure of where to take the plot and let it meander around for a while until we build to the climatic confrontations. Also, and this isn’t so much of an issue with the film on its own as it is with comparisons to another, after seeing “Paranorman” be able to achieve so many creative avenues with its story and homages to horror, “Frankenweenie” plays it rather safe for the majority of the time until the last act arrives. Again, these comparisons are inevitable when two films with similar goals come out at the same time, so don’t take that last one too harshly. “Frankenweenie” is certainly a quality movie to check out for fans of dark family fare, and even more so if you’re a dog lover or enjoy Tim Burton’s unique vision.