The biggest conundrum surrounding Tim Burton is how someone blessed with such a bountiful imagination can’t apply it to the fundaments of filmmaking. His movies look great, and whenever you go, you can be assured of seeing something you’ve never seen before. But the newness arises in the details, not the superstructure. His storylines are a mess, his characters fall into recognizable stereotypes, and he gets caught up in the minutiae of his world rather than the details. Small wonder he falls back on established works to facilitate his vision.
Frankenweenie presents a new twist on this formula, as Burton turns to… um, Burton to provide the impetus. It’s based on a live-action short he produced in his early days, delivered here as stop-motion and inflated to feature-length running time. The good news is that it successfully transfers the heart along the way, bringing much-needed emotion to this boy-and-his-undead-dog story. The bad news is that the rest of Burton’s flaws are in attendance as well. That, and the overt familiarity, drag down what should have been a triumphant return to form.
The set-up is agreeably simple and benefits from the beautiful black-and-white animation. It reimagines Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) as a quiet boy growing up in the little town of New Holland, which exists in that netherworld where the 1950s never ended. He doesn’t have many friends, save for his beloved dog Sparky who represented everything to him. (That’s kind of strange, since his schoolmates consist solely of fellow outcasts and oddballs, but no matter.) When Sparky gets hit by a car, he can’t let go, and uses lessons from his imperious science teacher (voiced by Martin Landau) to bring the dog back to life.
That’s all well and good, and the early scenes establishing the atmosphere are pure magic. Burton draws deeply upon his childhood in Burbank to paint a lovely picture of eccentric suburbanites. Victor’s well-meaning parents (voiced by Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) love their boy to death, even when they don’t get him. His fellow New Hollanders are much more distant, provoking Burton’s distrust of the mob and making for some interesting obstacles to throw in Victor’s path. Perhaps most importantly, the dog is cute as a damn button… even stitched together and dependent on electricity to keep himself perky. At times, the movie skates on him alone, and Burton’s obvious affection for his various misadventures keeps the tone bright and empathetic.
Eventually, however, those old boogeymen come creeping back to haunt him. With the dog now returned from the grave, Victor needs to keep him a secret for reasons that don’t immediately make sense. When that runs out of gas, the film shifts to the panicky citizens persecuting the science teacher, a timely topic considering the religious right’s hostility towards learning in this country. But that’s soon abandoned as well in favor of a full-bore monster mash, as other children in Victor’s class get in on the fun. Frankenweenie scores some wonderful moments in the process: things always pick up when chaos reigns, and the final chunk of mayhem makes for quite a treat. The nods to classic Universal tropes, particularly the windmill at the center of New Holland, are well-placed, and the film’s warm heart overcomes a lot of the problems.
And yet with each new permutation, you can sense Burton angling for an end game: seeking a way to wrap up his story neatly without having the tools to do the job. As he does so, he falls back on the same old stereotypes that have pulled him through before, while letting the plot threads slowly fall by the wayside. Developments arise that make no earthly sense, characters behave in inexplicable ways, and villains appear out of nowhere. It ultimately devolves into one of Burton’s patented messes: agreeable and even brilliant at times, but a mess nonetheless.
It also compounds the film’s implicit message about dealing with the realities of death. Sparky comes back from the dead because his owner loves him. Does that mean that children who lose their pets in the real world don’t love them quite so much? The film can’t get around that question and others like it, forming a disturbing undercurrent to an otherwise pleasing surface.
Does it render the film unwatchable? Far from it. It’s merely disappointing considering its potential and the pre-release hype. The grading system Mania uses has a significant flaw into that it doesn’t account for a sliding scale. This film is better than Hotel Transylvania, despite the equal grade I’ve given it. An Adam Sandler who rises above expectations differs significantly from a Tim Burton who can’t quite meet them. Frankenweenie carries plenty of his old magic along with it; just not enough to return him to the heights he once enjoyed.