6.3/10. Tim Burton has become as much of a brand as a filmmaker in recent years. As the quality and critical reputation of his films have suffered to some degree, his consistency in style and vibe have remained a sticking or selling point, depending on your view. Whether it’s the art deco design influences or the preponderance of Johnny Depp or the focus and fascination with oddballs and loners, there’s a certain expectation that comes with Burton’s name on the ledger, one that he’s delivered with aplomb, if less novelty, for a good long while now.
That is the best thing to say about Frankenweenie, a 2012 feature-length, animated update of Burton’s own original 1984 live action short. It has the things you’ve liked from other Burton (and Burton-adjacent) projects. There’s a young, misfit protagonist who could be the Claymation Johnny Depp. There’s return engagements from Wynona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, and Martin Landau. There’s the quirk, stop-motion influence design that feels of a piece with the Burton-influenced classic The Nightmare Before Christmas. And there’s a setting of the same slightly off-kilter bit of 50s-inspired suburbia that’s seemingly everywhere in Burton’s oeuvre.
None of this is especially novel, which perhaps ought to be expected from an elaboration on work Burton did in the 1980s. But it’s all endearing enough, as Burton’s work tends to be for people who find solace among his oddballs and loners and cuddly goth-pleasing aesthetic.
Which is why the first half hour or so of Frankenweenie, which leans into these classic Burton elements is the best part of the film. The part of the story where we’re introduced to reclusive, friendless protagonist Victor, see his bond with his beloved dog Sparky, and witness him as he’s pushed outside of his comfort zone, loses his canine best friend in the process, but through his adventurous and kind spirit manages to resurrect him, feels truest to the slightly bent, but nevertheless sincere quality that has proved to be a throughline for Burton’s best work.
The balance of the film, however, gives way to a ham-fisted message about backwards mistrust of science, and a fairly standard series of third act action set pieces that feel as much like padding as they do an integral part of the story.
With regard to the former, the film communicates a fairly blunt, if perhaps age-appropriate lesson about science. Victor’s bold science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski, is run out of town after he’s blamed for a local kid getting hurt after a mishap involving an ill-fated experiment for the school’s science fair, but not before he imparts some wisdom to Victor about people appreciating what science gives them, but fearing what they don’t understand about it. This pronouncement goes hand-in-hand with a Simpsons-esque town meeting where the assembled put the blame in the wrong place and lament science’s “evil” influence on their children.
Those children provide the other half of the film’s science-focused message. Victor’s attempt to bring back Sparky worked, and brought a loving pet to the realm of the living once more, the film posits, because he loved his dog, and had good intentions when he performed his experiments. His fellow students create monstrosities when recreating the same process because they lacked the heart, the kind intent Victor had, and these abominations provide the film’s climactic baddies. There’s a sense that people also fear science because bad actors use it for ill, but as Mr. Rzykruski points out, science is a tool, and one that can be used for good as much as it can lead to things that people fear.
The latter point, about a general ignorant fear of science, is baked into the Frankenstein source material that Burton is riffing on. But the latter, about the good intent necessary, is a unique, if somewhat trite addition to the story.
It warrants consideration of the reviewer’s crutch – that this is all a metaphor for the director himself. Just as Victor’s initial successful experiment is mangled by a group of copycats who wish to replicate his success without his deeply-held feelings manifested in his work, Burton has found himself the unlikely subject of imitators and idolizers who have attempted to use that same aesthetic and approach, but created works that feel soulless. Perhaps Frankenweenie is Burton’s own quiet rebuke of his inheritors, emphasizing the heart and conviction necessary to make his brand of magic on the screen.
But Frankenweenie succeeds when it steers clear of such clunky messaging and focuses on the sweet story at the core of the film: one about a young kid who doesn’t really fit in trying to find his place and losing his only friend. The scenes where we see Victor’s adventurous if isolated spirit, making his parents wonder if he’s really okay or if he needs to be pushed out of his nest a little bit, wring true to the sort of relatable experience filtered through the fantastical ethos that Burton has deployed for years.
That type of story is also endearing when wrapped in the trappings of the film’s animation and design. Clearly building off the superb work in the Burton-produced The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Sellick) there’s an enjoyably offbeat design to the denizens of New Holland, from Victor’s grotesque or wide-eyed classmates to the 50’s B-movie structure of the town. Similarly, there's a superlative reanimation sequence that shows off the director's visual flair in thrilling fashion.
The greatest success to this end is Sparky, the titular Frankenweenie himself. The film manages to find the right balance between adorable and reanimated with the stitched up pooch. Finding a nice blend between traditional dog-like behaviors and more wacky cartoon sidekickery, the pups yips and bits like wagging his newly reattached tail until it falls off again are fun with a side of Looney Tunes-style goofiness.
When these minor mishaps befall Sparky, Victory utters what amounts to his catch phrase, “I can fix that.” That’s the message of the film, that even kids (and adults and canines for that matter) that we don’t understand or even fear, can be the unlikely heroes who pave the way for us. It’s not a new sentiment from Burton, whose always found the beauty and potential of misfits in his films, and the hoariness of his recapitulation of his usual style and philosophy holds Frankenweenie back, but it’s an admirable one nonetheless.
Whilst it rarely feels like much of a departure from the usual Burton tropes (and this is of course another version of a previous Burton film), this is a wonderful homage to horror films and stories for adults that also doesn't alienate its core younger audience who will enjoy the mild scares that come in the final act. The stop motion animation lends a tangibility to the world that CGI can't replicate and the black and white photography is stunning. Burton is a master at developing characters who feel alienated and creating sympathy and understanding towards them, and there is incredible warmth in the relationship between Victor and his dog.
Definitely a recognizable Tim Burton creation but not one of his better ones. I wouldn't recommend it for any social event, it is a little slow for that but if you have some free time than it deserves a watch!
It's a cute, stylistic remake of Tim Burton's short film from 28 years ago. It's cute, and has a nice style with some funny jokes parodying classic horror films and monsters. It is somewhat predictable, but has some pretty good visuals, especially being done in black and white. If you've seen Tim Burton's previous stop-motion animated movies (especially "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), you'll like this one.