Not since Edward Scissorhands has Tim Burton made a film as personal as his latest stop-mo animated feature Frankenweenie, and after a string of less than stellar efforts in recent years, one can understand how fans of the singular filmmaker would wish it to be an unqualified success. Unfortunately, the success here is hardly unqualified, although it at least marks an improvement over duds like Alice in Wonderland and Dark Shadows.
Based on Burton's own short from 1984, the first half briskly lays out the world of young Victor Frankenstein, whose canine friend Sparky stars in his homemade monster movies. There's not much else that interests him in his quiet town of New Holland, which was no doubt chosen as the setting so that they could stick a windmill on the hill. He shies away from his neighbors and classmates, most of whom represent broad caricatures of legendary horror actors and characters. When sparky is felled by an untimely car, the grieving Victor decides to try out a little science experiment, figuring that enough electricity can revitalize his dead dog's nervous system and bring him back to life. This portion is when the movie is at its best, serving up an even blend of horror pastiche, macabre humour, but ultimately pathos (as Danny Elfman's mournful violins make perfectly clear). It also avoids needless dialogue, often allowing Burton's black-and-white compositions to tell the story, especially effective in the critical reanimation scene.
What Victor doesn't figure is that his success might inspire one-ups-man-ship attempts from his competitive classmates, all of whom seem unusually motivated to win their school science fair – which might be even more unrealistic than a deceased pooch returning from the grave! But their replications of Victor's experiment do not turn out as planned, instead yielding grotesque and terrorizing results, culminating in a climax of cheesy chaos at the town heritage festival. This portion is when the movie feels rushed and every intended payoff is unearned. Themes about the perversion of science and learning to let go of what you love are set up, but then scuppered by a hasty cop-out ending. Emotional beats fail to register because screenwriter John August never bothered to give any of the characters more than 2-dimensions, and that includes our central protagonist Victor, who seems to have less depth than his dog. Another possible reason is that the deliberately rough-around-the-edges animation (indulging in minimal CG manipulation) does not afford the faces the degree of expressiveness required to project what the character is supposed to be feeling.
On the whole, Frankenweenie is still a worthy watch for all its delightful Burtonisms. Film buffs will enjoy the dozens of sly references to horror cinema, be it the most recognizable classic or the most obscure cult film (I swear I detected a nod to Mommy Dearest in there). Including all his trademark assets and intrinsic drawbacks, it actually makes for an appropriate representation of who Burton is as a filmmaker.
**1/2 out of ****