Frankenweenie (2012)

Published on October 25th, 2012

By Jason Reed

Director: Tim Burton
Writer: John August, from a screenplay by Leonard Ripps and characters by Tim Burton
Starring (voices of): Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Charlie Tahan
Length: 87 min.

Young Victor (Charlie Tahan) lives with his parents and dog Sparky. Parting only when Victor is at school, the boy and his pet do everything together, including making home movies – in the film’s opening scene we watch one starring Sparky protecting a city against terrorizing monsters.

When Sparky is accidentally hit by a car, Victor is devastated; he would do anything to have his best friend back. His new science teacher at school, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau), inadvertently inspires Victor to experiment on Sparky and bring him back to life (an experiment that suggests Sparky’s name has been fittingly chosen). When Victor is successfully reunited with his dog, the news slips out and the rest of Victor’s class desperately seeks to uncover his secret so they can win the much coveted science fair prize.

Frankenweenie began life in 1984 as a live action short directed by Tim Burton and starring Shelley Duvall. Now Burton has transformed it into a full-length feature that showcases beautiful black and white stop-motion animation. Like he did in the short, Burton parodies Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein, transporting its story into suburbia and making the protagonist a schoolboy.

Burton’s latest is an odd family film, mixing his characteristic bouts of darkness, sentiment and humour. If anyone can make a story about a boy reanimating the corpse of his dog appealing and age appropriate, it’s Burton. Long associated with this idiosyncratic kind of amalgam, he makes it work here as he has in the past. 

Frankenweenie has echoes of the mood of Burton’s earlier work, in particular Edward Scissorhands (1990). Littered with loving references to classic horror and monster movies, it is a return to form for the director after the less exciting efforts Dark Shadows (2012) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).

The characters sparkle, thanks to the breathtaking character designs and superb voice performances from the likes of Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder. Fans of Burton’s work will notice the absence of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, although Victor’s design bears quite a resemblance to Burton’s favoured movie star.

With all of these wonderful elements in its favour, it is unfortunate to have to criticize Frankenweenie; however, the film does lack tension, particularly towards the end. This might be partly due to the well-worn source text; there are some surprises, but overall the film adheres to a familiar narrative. The characters are interesting enough, but there is no real sense of the dangers they face or what the final resolution of their story will be.

This is not a reason to avoid the film; it simply turns a potentially great film into a merely good one.

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