"What were you boys doing up there?" "Science."
I had been hoping that 2012 would be a return to form for the once reliably macabre Tim Burton, but following the disappointing Dark Shadows, that hope seemed to wither away into nothingness. I'm not even sure what a return to form would look like at this point, it's been nearly two decades since Burton has made a great film (Ed Wood) and the only correlation I can make is that as his budgets have increased, his imagination has decreased.
It's only a matter of time before his films become derivative of his earlier films and he begins repeating himself ad-nauseum, and while I wouldn't necessarily say that his latest film Frankenweenie falls into that category, it's certainly not the long awaited return to form we've been hoping for.
Based on Burton's own live action short film of the same name (which is available on The Nightmare Before Christmas blu-ray from a few years back) Frankenweenie tells the story of young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) who loses his dog & best friend Sparky in a tragic accident. Being a young man with a healthy interest in science, thanks to his over zealous science teacher Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), Victor stumbles upon the idea to bring Sparky back to life using electricity.
When his secret is discovered by his classmate Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), Victor is blackmailed into becoming a reanimation veterinarian. The other children in town have their own designs on bringing their deceased pets back to life, and the film builds towards a climactic showdown of the various reanimated animals. There are some subplots involving the other children and a scene that I rather enjoyed involving the scared townspeople turning on the science teacher, and invariably, the very notion of science, but like most every other subplot, it went nowhere fast.
The film isn't short on imagination, and it wears its heart for old monster movies firmly on its sleeve. The other kids in town resemble & even sound like famous horror film stars from Boris Karloff to Paul Muni, and science teacher Mr. Rzykruski is clearly based on Burton's beloved mentor Vincent Price. My favorite homage was the town's mayor, Mr. Burgermeister, based on the character from the classic Rankin/Bass holiday favorite Santa Claus is Coming to Town. There are homages aplenty, including the climactic showdown at a windmill, and they add to the overall loving air of attention to detail that the film is packed with.
Burton has always packed his films with outsiders, but with no real antagonist in this film, the outsiders struggle to find any meaningful direction. As I mentioned earlier, the subplots come and go quickly enough that you can't get invested in any of them, but the main plot has no real driving force to it, leading the final battle to have very low stakes. It could have been better had they stuck with the small-minded townsfolk's fear of science, but that's just one of many avenues that could have made the film feel richer and more complete.
The voice cast is notably good, featuring a mini-reunion of sorts for lovers of Beetlejuice, as the film features both Winona Ryder & Catherine O'Hara voicing characters. Martin Short is also a welcome addition in multiple roles, giving Victor's dad a nice, understanding tone that is usually in short supply in films about outsider kids. The child voice actors do admirable work as well, although it is odd to have both adults and children voicing the child characters.
The animation is fantastic, rendered in glorious black and white. I am an ardent admirer of stop-motion animation, and this is very good, if almost too bland. It doesn't have the anarchic glee of an Aardman Studio film or the visual opulence of a Laika film, but it doesn't look bad and adds to the overall eeriness of the film. It feels clinical rather than homey, and that does give it all a bit of a disadvantage when held up to other films in the genre.
Ultimately, it turns out that a film needs more than a lot of love for its influences to be a complete film. The film just doesn't have a ton of substance. It's a cute diversion and never overstays its welcome, it's just didn't have enough at stake to feel like a full experience. Tim Burton has it in him to make a great film again, it's just that he's wallowed in mediocrity for so long that when he does something halfway decent such as this, it ends up seeming much better than it actually is as a result. There's a lot to like about Frankenweenie, but I really wanted to love it.
GO Rating: 2.5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]