Instead of a celebration of classic horror films and the imagination of Tim Burton, Frankenweenie is more a reminder of why “the good old days” seemed a lot better back then.
In the town of New Holland (looking eerily like the sanitized suburb from Edward Scissorhands), a young boy named Victor (voice of Charlie Tahan) loses his beloved dog, Sparky, in an accident. On the eve of an upcoming science fair, his new science teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (voice of Martin Landau channeling Vincent Price), indirectly suggests to him that electricity might hold the key to restoring his dog to life. The experiment is a success, but New Holland is a who’s who of future mad scientists, and a breakthrough on how to reanimate dead pets isn’t going to remain a secret for long.
There’s a lot to love about the works of Tim Burton. From The Nightmare Before Christmas to Alice In Wonderland, his singular dark-and-twisty view of the world is a wonder to behold. Unfortunately, it’s rare that image and setting can carry a film all on its own; in fact, Beetlejuice is one of the actual few examples of any movie getting away this. The problem is that there’s a better version of Frankenweenie already in existence (it’s in the extras of most copies of Nightmare), and this stop-motion version seems to borrow from not only Burton’s own work but every other classic work of black and white horror as well. It could be argued that Frankenweenie is a love-letter to Burton fans, but the finished product looks very weak directly compared to the sheer brilliance of the similarly themed ParaNorman.
The first problem is the setting itself, a static Scissorhands’s suburbia that turns into a stormridden Frankenburg each night. Whoever heard of an entire middle school class that’s actually excited to compete and win at a science fair? Adding in a Vincent Price clone as a catalyst seems redundant other than a single plot point, and the very idea that Victor’s father insists he try out for baseball in order to enter the science fair (really?) seems even more ridiculous considering how many eggheads are on the aforementioned team. Forgiving all of this, the film then takes a completely bizarre turn in the last act, invoking everything from Godzilla to The Wizard of Oz to mine for pointless monsters. While there’s nothing wrong with derivative works, Frankenweenie feels tired with been-there-seen-that rather than actually paying homage to the work. It feels like what it is: a padded short story that didn’t require embellishment.
Dark Shadows had already come out (and quickly went) by the time this film appeared. ParaNorman also came out over a month ahead of Frankenweenie and didn’t even have the advantage of being a Halloween release to help bolster an audience. Perhaps the problem is that Burton is revisiting familiar territory when he should be looking for the seed of inspiration. Neither remaking other people’s intellectual properties nor his own has fared well, but Alice In Wonderland appeared to work because it was inspired by its namesake rather than being just another rehash of it. If Burton continues on his current course, it’ll be a lot harder to please his fan base when the studios refuse to fit the bill.
(a one and a half skull recommendation out of four)