In “Frankenweenie,” Tim Burton revisits his roots and creates a gothic-style story about a sweet misfit. It’s the best film Burton’s had in ages (which is a bit ironic considering “Frankenweenie” is sort of old and not just new; it’s one of his older shorts turned feature length). Yet, even with Burton seemingly back on track with the genre he initially charmed us with, there’s still something missing from “Frankenweenie” and even with all the electrical puns and jokes in this film, that certain spark just isn’t there.
From just looking at the film, it has everything in place to be a classic. The stop-motion animation works well and the model sets and puppets are exquisite and incredibly detailed. One of the finest details was an effect used in the eyes of the dog, Sparky. After he was reanimated, the eyes had a glow to them that would subtly fade as his energy faded and he needed to be charged up. I also really loved the detail that went into the animated film within this animated film. “Frankenweenie” begins with Viktor showing his parents a homemade film starring Sparky and its one of the finest mini-story sequences since the montage in “Up.”
Then of course, I loved the little nods to other horror-comedy and genre film. The Winona Ryder-voiced character, Elsa, had spiky black hair much like Ryder’s character in “Beetlejuice” and the science teacher voiced by Martin Landau was designed to look like Vincent Price from Burton’s first stop-motion film, “Vincent.” There were also the obvious “Frankenstein” references and show-stealing references to “Gremlins” in the form of sea monkeys. In fact, half the fun of this film was picking out the allusions to other classics or to the “Frankenstein” canon (extra points for the Shelley reference). However, because so much of this film was tied up in adult knowledge, I could see it being harder for a young child to connect to this film. The film was almost halfway over before any of the children in my audience started laughing and reacting to the film’s story.
It’s this relationship with the target child audience that makes it hard for me to give “Frankenweenie” the label of a great movie and I think a lot of the feeling of disconnect has to do with this being a short film adapted into 90 minutes without having 90 minutes of plot to fill it with. It begins as a story about a misfit who suffers from bullying and isolation and when he loses his only friend, Sparky, he also to learn to move on or do something about it. When he reanimates the dog, the film really could have ended. At some point, this film seems to be making some sort of statement about science and ignorance. I get that the problems of community ignorance are a theme in Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” but it came off as a little convoluted in this film and it didn’t help that the film couldn’t quite decide where it stood on this issue. One second science is evil, but then the next scene has people bending over backwards to win a science fair? If everyone really was raised to hate science so much, wouldn’t the kids trying to be ‘cool’ not care about winning the science fair? And then what is the deal with misfit, ostracized kids in this town? “ParaNorman” worked because you could empathize with the protagonist – he really was a bullied loner. There was a definite difference in how he was treated compared to the other kids and because the difference was so easy to see, you could feel for him and also grow with the town when they learned how to treat people that are different from them better. In “Frankenweenie,” everyone is shown to actually be much the same and no one really seems to have any more friends or bully any less than another character. The only character that I end up feeling anything for is the mumbling Elsa, who never really is allowed to share her own voice but shows compassion and patience for everyone else. You know what really would have made a kid look like they didn’t fit in? Showing a kid that didn’t have a pet – is this like a city rule for everyone to have a pet?
Maybe I’m just being bitter at the ill light that this film paints cats in. By the end of this film, we see the town mourning the loss of a dog and working to save Sparky, but a girl’s cat bites the dust and everyone cheers? If you’re a cat lover, you might stay away.
But in all seriousness, at least this film, though a little unsure of what it wants its overall message to be, has more of a message than any of the other “wacky” messes from Burton’s last few movies. It’s one of those films you go see if there’s nothing else that you really want to see, but you just need to get out of the house. It’s enjoyable enough and pretty to look at, but it isn’t an instant classic by any means. And though it is pretty obvious from the title and trailer, I feel it is necessary to remind parents that the dog does die in this film…then returns to life. Depending on the age of your child, it might be a good idea to talk to them about this before seeing the film (older kids at my screening were fine, but there was some crying from younger ones). Also, with three animated horror-comedy family films currently out this year, they’re all surprisingly watchable, but honestly, I think families will have the most fun and find the most meaning in “ParaNorman.” At the end of the day, “Frankenweenie” is a cool idea, but could use a little more life.