After a never-ending series of soulless Johnny Depp vehicles, director Tim Burton has gone back to his roots with Frankenweenie, his best and most heartfelt flick in years. By taking his original short (made in 1983) and blowing it up to feature size, he’s found the ideal vehicle for meditating on his usual tropes (gothic and nerdy) while adding enough light scares to keep the kiddies entertained.
The story is basically Frankenstein with a dog. Young Victor is a nerdy, aspiring filmmaker who loves science class, his dog Sparky and little else. He and Sparky are inseparable, spending their days making short films and tinkering with science experiments. When Sparky is tragically run over by a car and killed, Victor brings him back to life with a few stitches and a bolt of lightning.
Victor tries to keep the newly reanimated Sparky hidden, fearing what will happen when his parents discover he’s brought the dead back to life. It isn’t long before the secret’s out, thanks to a creepy hunchbacked kid named Edgar (the film’s Igor) who forces Victor to let him in on his life-giving secret. In a side-plot, all the neighbourhood kids are getting ready to compete in the school’s science fair, and Edgar thinks he’s found the perfect experiment.
That is, of course, until things go awry. Not quite like they do in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — all of the kids get a chance to make their own monster, with predictably disastrous results. It’s all in service of a message about love and friendship, which becomes muddled in the telling, but Burton’s ragged storytelling isn’t really what audiences will be excited to see.
After abandoning the delightfully creepy stop-motion animation early in his career for computer-generated banality, it’s a treat to see Burton hasn’t lost his touch for the art. The animation is lovely, with just enough jerky moments to give it a welcome handmade tone. Though it’ll bring to mind the aesthetic of A Nightmare Before Christmas for some viewers, that flick looks even more the product of director Henry Selick than anything in Frankenweenie. Like Burton’s other animated short, Vincent, and the animation in Beetlejuice and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, the design of the characters — spindly and cadaver-like — is Burton’s own.
And like every new animated flick, it’s in 3D. (When will it end?) While the 3D is sharp and clear, it’s used to little effect. Most impressive is Burton shooting it in black-and-white, like the original short. The tale is firmly rooted in the Universal monster flicks from the 1930s, and it’d be unimaginable seeing the film any other way. Considering it’s a children’s film, good on Disney for giving audiences enough credit to accept (and enjoy) a black-and-white movie.
The voice work is inspired, with most of the cast pulling double (and sometimes triple or quadruple) duty with multiple characters. Catherine O’Hara is the most hilarious as the creepy, moon-eyed little girl (who prophesies Sparky’s doom via cat shit), and it’s great to see Martin Short remind viewers how versatile he is with his drastically different caricatures.
Frankenweenie isn’t perfect — Burton pulls too many punches, often draining the weirdness out of the story when it counts, and some of the kids’ voice work is weak. Really, the film doesn’t improve on the short Burton made all those years ago, and unless the film’s odd and often staid pacing intrigues, the experience will be confusing and listless. It’s still a wonder to look at, however. Burton was once one of the most visually inventive directors at work, and it’s strange how he had to go back to one of his earliest films to do something different. Here’s hoping he finds himself newly inspired.