Written by: John August (screenplay), and Tim Burton & Leonard Ripps (story)
Directed by: Tim Burton
Starring: Charlie Tahan, Winona Ryder, and Martin Short
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
I suppose Tim Burton needed to reboot himself to put a jolt back into his own career; save for a few exceptions (Big Fish and The Corpse Bride), the last decade of his career has been a series of diminishing returns. He reached the nadir earlier this year with Dark Shadows, a film that either played as a parody or a cynical recycling of his own signature style--either way, there wasnít a hint of life or spark in the thing, almost as if itíd been auto-piloted from its conception. Itís easy to be similarly cynical about Frankenweenie and wonder if Burton is so bereft of ideas that he has to raid his own closet for material; however, the film acts more like a reset button that his career so desperately needs. While thereís no mistaking it for anything but a Tim Burton film (and a pretty slight one at that), itís a refreshing reminder of just how joyous and infectious his work can be for all its gloominess.
An update of Burtonís 1984 short of the same name, Frankenweenie launches from the same starting point: Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tehan) is growing up to be a weird kid who loves horror and science-fiction. In fact, with the help of his best friend and dog Sparky, he creates his own films in his backyard. After Sparky is hit by a car, Victor is despondent; unable to cope with his loss, he attempts to revive Sparky after his science teacher (Martin Landau) delivers a lesson on electricity and the human anatomy. To his shock, the experiment is successful, but he must keep it a secret, especially from his classmates who are desperate for ideas for the upcoming science fair.
From there, itís sort of easy to see how this script might have been Frankensteined together, as the film starts to feel like a bit of a patchwork. The setup is an intimate and touching story about a child learning to cope with death and his own awkwardness; so much of Burtonís work seems semi-autobiographical, but the gangly, detached Victor seems to be an exact match for the director, and Frankenweenie looks all set to explore typical Burton territory with the weirdo outsider doing good. However, this dimension is sort of shorn almost from the start when it turns out that the town of New Holland is practically a Burton snow globe, full of oddballs and a vaguely retro aesthetic. While the film is set in modern times, itís steeped in 50s and 60s Americana, where people watch Hammer Dracula movies on television and live in perfectly symmetrical suburbs.
Thereís obviously a bit of disconnect between Victor and this sort of environment that gets diluted by the fact that his entire class (including the long-faced teacher whoís a dead ringer for Vincent Price) is strange. Instead of banding together against a town that misunderstands them, all of the kids are practically battling each other, and whatever poignancy the film might have on childhood loneliness and awkwardness is pretty miniscule. This approaches the same path as ParaNorman but ultimately takes a hard right run when Burton concocts his own little monster rally flick by way of Pet Sematary style plot mechanics that sees New Holland besieged by a slew of reanimated pets gone haywire. Victor and Sparky must save the day--just as theyíve done in their own movies, of course--but the film never quite recaptures its affecting center, partially because the ending is a bit muddled thematically.
Getting there is still a lot of fun, though, especially for monster movie enthusiasts. The filmís most obvious reference point is James Whaleís Frankenstein and its sequel, but the entire movie is a grab bag of nice, unobtrusive references. One of Victorís hunchbacked, gap-toothed classmates is a nice Fritz/Ygor hybrid, while another slightly resembles Karloff himself (and even ends up resurrecting a mummified critter). The climax unleashes even more winks upon a knowing audience, the sharpest of whom might pick out possible echoes of Ghoulies and even Graveyard Shift (thereís a cool hybrid creature featuring a bat thatís really cool). Presented with the madcap energy of a kid playing with his monster toys, this sequence finds a purity thatís been missing from Burtonís work for a while.
Had it been accompanied with a little more thematic heft and depth, Frankenweenie would have been a complete return to form for Burton. The film still manages to poke around and interestingly reconfigure Mary Shelleyís original story into something thatís a little brighter and optimistic. Whereas Frankenstein is a stark, ominous warning against unchecked ambition working in cooperation with science, Frankenweenie is firmly in the camp of science--so long as itís done with love and care. Hell, thereís even an entire aside where Victorís teacher chastises the town for their backwards, ignorant beliefs about science thatís unfortunately spot-on for anyone whoís witnessed such small-town closed-mindedness. Reworking the themes in such a dramatic manner expectedly runs into some problems, though I did enjoy how it reworks the climax of Whaleís Frankenstein. The ending is a bit more problematic, and leaves me a bit torn; one the one hand, this is exactly how a child would probably try to revise Frankenstein, but, on the other, the film dramatically undercuts any sort of resonant message it could have.
Despite this, Frankenweenie is remains a joy to behold--itís awesomely crafted with a gorgeously macabre production design thatís accentuated by the black and white photography (and kudos to whoever allowed that decision to stand instead of going for color). The voice talent is a nice assembly, though Winona Ryder is unfortunately a tad wasted as the girl who lives next door to Victor; their dogs become romantically involved, and thereís a hint that Victor and Ella might too someday, but the two hardly share any significant screen time. At any rate, Frankenweenie still succeeds in restoring a pulse to Burtonís career; really, it seems appropriate that he essentially had to resurrect the corpse of an old idea to accomplish this. The familiar refrain of "it's alive" might as well refer to my hope for Burton's future output. Buy it!
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