Film Review – Frankenweenie
It has been a long time since Tim Burton has been a relevant filmmaker for me. Stylistically, I have always appreciated his eye, but not since 2003’s Big Fish have I enjoyed one of his movies. It actually goes beyond that; some of his more recent films have been downright painful, such as Alice in Wonderland. The trailers for his latest film, Frankenweenie, felt like a throwback to the Tim Burton of old, so I was holding out hope for a return to form, and I got it…kind of.
Frankenweenie is an animated film inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the death of a dog from Tim Burton’s childhood. Following the death of his dog Sparky, Victor Frankenstien (voiced by Charlie Tahan) is inspired by his new science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (voiced by Martin Landau) to bring his beloved pet back from the dead using the power of electricity. As knowledge of the resurrection spreads amongst his classmates, they begin to try their own experiments, with dire consequences.
I have mixed feelings about Tim Burton’s career in animation. I think his concept for The Nightmare Before Christmas is brilliant, but since he didn’t actually direct it, it is hard to know how much credit he deserves for the final production (Henry Selick certainly deserves a lot). Conversely, he did direct Corpse Bride, which felt very flat and was pretty forgettable, despite its big name cast. Perhaps both of these experiences drove Burton to go back to his roots and resurrect (pun intended) a short film on the same subject which he made during his early days as an animator at Disney, also called Frankenweenie. Regardless, his impact on the stop-motion animation industry has been profound, and it definitely creates intrigue when he begins to work on a new film in that genre.
Stylistically, this film is instantly recognizable as a Tim Burton movie. It has the same gothic look and feel as The Nightmare Before Christmas and Corpse Bride. The 3D didn’t really blow me away, but the quality of the animation was very solid. The film is pretty breezy, with a runtime under 90 minutes, so it keeps the plot moving at a nice clip. Generally this is something I enjoy, but I really think this movie could’ve benefited from an additional 15-20 minutes. Given the personal nature of the plot, I would’ve loved to have more time spent on Victor’s and Sparky’s relationship, and the impact the resurrection has on both of them. Too much time is spent on the accessory characters, who are given little depth as the plot jumps between the many of them. Still, the core storyline about the love between Victor and Sparky is really engaging and quite sweet.
The film runs into problems in its second half as it transitions from Victor’s and Sparky’s story to becoming an homage to the classic Universal monsters. I don’t necessarily have a problem with either of those concepts, but they feel somewhat mashed together. I was also shocked at how scary this was for an animated children’s film. I said the same earlier this year for Pixar’s Brave, so perhaps I don’t have the best sense of what kids can handle, but I was surprised by the content of the movie. In addition to the death of Sparky in the beginning of the film (and I’m still giving my parents a hard time for showing me Turner and Hooch as a kid), there is decent amount of animated violence and gore, and one death scene towards the end seemed particularly graphic.
While I didn’t necessarily think it meshed with the core storyline, if young kids are able to handle the movie, it could be a good introduction to the classic Universal monsters. I saw films like Young Frankenstein long before I saw Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein, but when I finally did, it gave me a new appreciation for the nuance of the original property, and the parody, as well. The recent release of the Universal Classic Monsters Essential Collection might be a perfect pairing for kids if they enjoy this movie. In terms of scariness for modern audiences, they seem to be on par with each other.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to say it is the Tim Burton of old, Frankenweenie definitely feels like a step on the right path. I might be reluctant to take small children, but the homage to the classic Universal monsters alone is almost worth the price of admission. No matter the financial outcome of the movie, I will consider it a success if Burton has truly learned from his past mistakes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this is going to win Best Animated Film at the Academy Awards, but I will say it probably deserves to at least be in the discussion.
Final Grade: B