I thought Tim Burton was done, folks. I was absolutely sure that this was the year when Burton would prove himself beyond any shadow of a doubt to be a washed up has-been. Because brother, he had so many chances this year to prove it. First he made Dark Shadows, an underwhelming flop that was rightfully thrashed at the box office by The Avengers. Then he exec-produced Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, another box office bomb made entirely of botched potential. But then came the crowning ignominy. Not Frankenweenie itself, but the posters.
Right there at the top, it says "From the director of Alice in Wonderland." Seriously, that's the credit they went with. Never mind that this was the man who made the 1989 Batman, Beetlejuice, and Edward Scissorhands. Never mind that he previously made an okay stop-motion film called Corpse Bride and a classic stop-motion film called The Nightmare Before Christmas, the latter of which is still moving merchandise to this day. Hell, Disney could even have gone with Sweeney Todd or the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory remake.
But no, Disney went with a 3D piece of crap that only made so much money because it had the good fortune of being released while Avatar was still fresh in the public consciousness. They didn't even bother putting another film in there, just Alice in Wonderland. That, above all the other films in Burton's 30-year filmography, is his defining work as far as the mainstream is concerned. Folks, I could not think of a more accurate or a more embarrassing epitaph for the career of this once-great filmmaker.
Of course it bears remembering that Frankenweenie hadn't come out yet. Even so, I was ready for this film to bomb. Somehow, some way, I knew that Burton was going to botch this movie. Given his recent track record, it was inevitable. Except, given the film's early positive buzz, it apparently wasn't.
So now, I'm here to report that -- impossible as it may have seemed -- Frankenweenie somehow managed to meet expectations. In a good way.
Of course, it may have helped that this film is a feature-length adaptation of a short film that Burton made back in the upward slope of his career. It also bears mentioning that though Danny Elfman is on hand to provide a score (and it's a wonderful score, I might add), Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter were left at home. There's also John August, here returning for his fifth writing credit under Burton. At least we can all be thankful that Seth Grahame-Smith wasn't let anywhere near this picture.
Anyway, the premise is a simple one. This is the story of a grade-school boy, voiced by Charlie Tahan, who just happens to be named Victor Frankenstein. Victor's beloved dog dies, he brings the pet back to life, chaos ensues. Luckily, the premise is a deceptively strong one in execution.
For one thing, the dog himself -- Sparky, voiced by the legendary Frank Welker -- is done perfectly. Not only is Sparky beautifully animated, but he acts and moves much like you'd expect a dog to. More than that, he acts and moves like a particularly energetic and lovable dog. Sparky is a lot of fun to spend time with, which is incredibly vital. Not only does it keep the dog entertaining to watch, but getting emotionally invested in the story and suspending disbelief become so much easier.
Something else that this film gets right is in the relationship between Victor and Sparky. These two characters work beautifully off of each other, such that I could easily cheer for and relate to the love between these two plastic figures. Victor and Sparky give the movie its heart, and the whole film is elevated for how beautifully it works.
Finally, the film works wonderfully as an homage to horror films of yesteryear. The movie opens with a shlocky Super 8 monster film that Victor made in his backyard, which perfectly sets the film's tone and endeared the movie to me almost instantly. It also bears mentioning that Burton shot the entire film in monochrome for added retro effect, and the film looks no less beautiful for it.
Then there's the climax. Oh, sweet Harryhausen, that climax. The film hits its apex with a bona fide monster mash, as the good people of New Holland are terrorized by a half-dozen different kinds of monsters. There's a horde of mischievous creatures (think Gremlins), there's a hybrid of different animals, there's a mutated rat (that looks uncannily like the werewolf from Nightmare Before Christmas, I might add), there's a giant Godzilla knock-off, and of course it all ends in a burning windmill. It is glorious and a great deal of fun to watch.
On the other hand, this brings up a huge problem with the film: The pacing. Sparky comes back to life half an hour in, the other monsters don't come in until the hour mark, and everything in between is about getting us to the latter point. This might not be a bad thing, except that the film has only 87 minutes to spend. The film spends a third of its runtime in a holding pattern as we wait with increasing frustration for the movie monster mayhem that we know is inevitably coming.
What makes the pacing even worse is that so much of the second act -- and parts of the first act as well -- don't really amount to much. As an example, we learn that for whatever unexplained reason, New Holland is hit with lightning storms every night. This would be enough as a cheeky way of explaining why Victor should be so fortunate as to have a local source of lightning ready for his experiments, but the movie goes a step further. It implies that the storms may be supernatural in nature, and may hold the key for why Sparky's revival worked. So what is this supernatural power? How does it work and why is it local to New Holland? Never explained! The narrative is totally uninterested in this potential gold mine of story material, which I consider to be a huge waste of potential.
We also have some characters and quirks that are thoroughly worthless. A prominent example is a character known only as "Weird Girl" (one of Catherine O'Hara's many roles in this picture), whose cat is thought to leave "omens" in the litter box. This point contributes nothing except for one scene of painfully juvenile humor, unfunny slapstick, and foreshadowing that barely deserves to be called as such.
Then we have the love interests. One of them is a poodle named Persephone. Her owner is the young Elsa Van Helsing (voiced by Winona Ryder, of all people), whose uncle happens to be the mayor (Martin Short, in one of his many roles). The film seemed to present Persephone and Elsa as love interests for Sparky and Victor respectively, which prompted me to ask "Really?" These two characters contributed jack squat to the narrative, and character development for them was pitifully thin. Though Sparky and Persephone did get a good hint of chemistry, there was absolutely nothing credible about those brief few moments when we were expected to believe Victor and Elsa as love interests.
Mind you, that isn't to say Elsa is bad or boring. She's not even bland, per se. Elsa is simply inert. She's just there. She's only barely present in the film without sufficient time to establish herself as a character, to interact with the other characters in any significant way, or to influence the plot.
Still, where this film really drops the ball is in terms of theme. All too often, the film brings up potential themes and proceeds to do absolutely nothing with them. A key example comes early in the film, when Victor's father (Martin Short again) gives this huge speech about compromise. The speech goes on for so long and it's so fortunately placed in the first act that you'd think it was a cornerstone of the film. It isn't.
Then there's the matter of science. Much like the Mary Shelley opus that the movie owes so much to, this film offers a lot of very interesting statements about science, its misunderstood importance, and how it can be just as easily used for good as for evil. A lot of it resonated deeply with me as a student of science. Then the film goes a step further and calls the townspeople out on their ignorance. A character states that science is basically witchcraft to them, for how illogical they are and how much they fear what they don't understand.
On the one hand, it's good that the film takes the step of satirizing the time-honored trope of a pitchfork-wielding mob. On the other hand, the townspeople don't actually become a pitchfork-wielding mob until the movie is practically over, so it does little good. More importantly, the film never shows us any sign that the characters have learned their lesson. The movie ends before we can see how any of the characters have grown and developed in response to everything that happens, and we're left with no idea as to whether or not they have a greater respect or understanding for science.
But all of this is small potatoes compared to how this film handles its other big theme, mortality. It's worth remembering that this is still a "boy and his dog" story, and such stories must inevitably end with the audience in tears. As Old Yeller proved so many years ago, these stories are ideal for exploring the concept of mortality in a way that kids can understand and relate to. Indeed, you'd think it would be practically mandatory for Frankenweenie, a film with all five stages of acceptance directly hardwired into its premise.
As such, you'd think that the film would end with Victor letting go and making peace with the death of his canine companion. But -- to put this as spoiler-free as I can -- the film chooses to take a different approach. And it's an approach I totally disagree with. In fact, to be entirely frank, the theme is mishandled in just such a way that I'd call it an outright betrayal.
Really, that's the overall problem with this film in terms of theme. It does a great job of talking the talk, but it trips up when time comes to walk the walk. The characters don't seem to learn anything from what happens on the screen, which doesn't exactly encourage the audience to take anything away from it. Then again, this may be symptomatic of the film's ending, which (much like Corpse Bride before it) leaves the film with way too much unresolved. If the film had taken just two more minutes to tie up some character arcs, the whole film would have been much better for it.
Fortunately, for all of my complaints about how the character arcs are mishandled, the characters themselves are -- for the most part -- wonderfully quirky and unique. Toshiaki and Nassor worked very nicely as different kinds of evil boy genius megalomaniacs, and Edgar "E" Gore was a greasy little worm that I loved to hate (though I can't be the only one who mistook him for a girl at first). There's also a token fat kid who's there for comic relief, but he gets that job done quite well. Even the mayor was entertaining in his own puffed-up, self-righteous, easy to despise kind of way.
That said, Christopher Lee only gets a cameo in this film, when Victor's parents are watching his seminal performance as Count Dracula. Once again, Tim Burton proves that though he has easy access to one of the greatest character actors who ever lived, he doesn't have a damn clue how to use Lee effectively.
Visually, the film is every bit as beautifully freaky as you might expect a Tim Burton project to be. Even so, the animation is very hit-and miss. Some characters are animated beautifully (Sparky foremost among them), but other characters looked awfully glitchy. The mouth movements on the mayor and on the science teacher (Mr. Rzykruski, voiced by Martin Landau) looked especially choppy. Sadly, the biggest wild card was Victor himself, since there are times when the character's unnaturally smooth face doesn't lend itself very well to emotion. To wit, there are at least two occasions when Victor is crying out "NOOOOO!" to his dog. Tahan's voice work sells those moments. The animation does not.
Finally, it's worth noting that I chose to see this film in 2D. Though there were a couple of schlocky jump scares that were clearly designed for 3D, I didn't regret skimping on the ticket premium. Moreover, this film was made in black and white to evoke a distinctly retro feel. I don't understand how seeing such a film on an IMAX screen through polarized lenses would add to the effect.
Frankenweenie has some glaring flaws, particularly with regards to its lackluster pacing and the insincere delivery of its themes. Even so, when this movie gets it right, the movie really gets it right. Though the film's examination of mortality comes off as incredibly half-baked, the basic story of a boy and his dog is brimming over with heart. Though the movie's talk of science amounts to little more than empty rhetoric, the film's love of retro horror cinema rings entirely true. Throw in a colorful cast of characters and a couple of genuinely fun sequences, and I can bring myself to give the movie a passing grade.
The film is certainly not as good as anything from Burton's '80s-'90s heyday, but it's still miles better than his more recent output. The movie is certainly worth a look if you're curious, but don't bother with a 3D ticket.