Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but in the case of Tim Burton’s latest effort, Frankenweenie, it does breed indifference and, on more than one occasion, boredom.
Seemingly content to direct remakes and adaptations for the last decade, Frankenweenie represents a literal return for Burton, a return to the first film he directed for Disney almost 30 years ago. Burton’s original black-and-white live-action short, Frankenweenie, led Disney to sever all ties with Burton. In the years following, Burton directed Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice and Batman. In a not-quite-ironic twist, Burton’s nearly three decade-old successful career as a filmmaker led Disney executives to reconsider a decision they, or, more likely, their predecessors, regretted.
When we meet Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), he’s doing what Tim Burton once did best (or better than most), making affectionate homages to the monster movies that moved him. While his parents (Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short) dote on him, Victor’s bond with his bull terrier, Sparky, is seemingly stronger than anything (and everything else). Pushed and prodded by his parents to become less of an introvert (and junior scientist), Victor reluctantly joins the town’s softball league only to lose Sparky in an unfortunate accident. Taking the words and teachings of eccentric his science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), to heart, Victor duplicates his namesake’s experiment, using one of the town’s frequent lightning storms to resurrect Sparky.
Victor’s decision to hide Sparky’s return from his parents and classmates gives Frankenweenie the initial momentum to carry it beyond the half-hour mark, not coincidentally the same length of Burton’s live-action short. Working from a script credited to frequent Burton collaborator, John August (Dark Shadows, Corpse Bride, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Big Fish), Burton adds another layer of complexity (and plot turns) by multiplying Victor’s experiment five- or six-fold, thanks (or rather no thanks) to Victor’s classmate, Igor. After inadvertently discovering Victor’s secret, Igor hits on an idea: Victor should share the secret of Sparky’s return in exchange for his silence and the resurrection of a pet fish.
The spread of Victor’s secret allows Burton and his talented team of animators to indulge in several additional homages beyond Universal’s take on Frankenstein. Among others, the Mummy gets a shout-out of sorts, as does the werewolf (or were-creature), and Japanese kaiju (giant monster) flicks released with assembly-line regularity during the 1950s and the 1960s. Homage, affectionate or not, can only get you so far and Frankenweenie succeeds or fails on the strength of the central story, more specifically the central relationship between Victor and Sparky. On that level, Frankenweenie succeeds, almost always poignantly in capturing the sweet, sometimes bittersweet relationship between a boy (or a girl) and his (or her) dog. In Burton’s universe, death is only a minor hindrance or obstacle, easily overcome with imagination and ingenuity.
And while, again, Frankenweenie’s animators deserve tremendous credit for realizing Burton’s vision, from puppet building (300 in all), to sets and props, to the time- and labor-intensive work necessary to turn an inanimate object into the illusion of a living, breathing, personality-driven character, ultimately Frankenweenie feels like Burton revisiting old, familiar ideas because he lacks new ones. The subplot involving Victor’s classmates and rivals feels inorganic, added to pad out the running time from a live-action or animated short to a feature-length film. Victor’s principal rival, Toshiaki (James Hiroyuki Liao), a heavily accented Japanese student, doesn’t just border on caricature and stereotype, it crosses over into offensive territory. For all its familiarity and missteps, however, Frankenweenie still has much to offer stop-motion animation fans (less so for Burton’s fans).
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