There’s probably not a more known master of the gothic and macabre to the movie-going public other than Tim Burton. He somehow has gotten a fair amount of mainstream success by creating strange, offbeat worlds that are beautifully twisted. He has also kept Hot Topic in business for the past 10 years. Burton has definitely been apart of my movie-going life since seeing PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE (still my favorite film of his) at the age of 9 in the theater (twice). I love BEETLEJUICE, both BATMAN films, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD, SLEEPY HOLLOW, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, CORPSE BRIDE and SWEENEY TODD. I even liked the silly MARS ATTACKS, cause it was like his own (big budget) Ed Wood film. But in 2001, he had his first misfire with PLANET OF THE APES, but he’d be the first to tell you that he wasn’t happy with it. A lot of people dug BIG FISH, but I just couldn’t get into it. His last 2 movies have also been let downs for me. Both ALICE IN WONDERLAND and DARK SHADOWS, while filled with quirky characters and gorgeously outlandish production design, were emotionally cold movies. He seems to not care about story anymore, and it’s frustrating as a Burton fan. I was hoping for a return to form with FRANKENWEENIE. It had to be good, right? I mean, this is where his live-action filmmaking career began.
Based on his 1984 short subject, Burton has turned FRANKENWEENIE into a feature film, but this time using stop-motion animation. The set-up is basically the same. A young boy loves his dog so much, that when it dies he decides to bring it back to life. But this time Burton has time to set up the characters and the atmosphere of the town a little better. Taking place in an old-fashioned small town called New Holland (love the Hollywood-type sign), it’s pretty much the same type of suburban hell hole that was displayed in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS. Victor is a quiet young boy who loves his dog Sparky. Together they make Black & White monster movies on Super 8. During one of Victor’s baseball games, Sparky chases the ball that victor hit into the street and gets killed by a car. Victor gets the idea to bring his dog back to life from his science teacher. In true Frankenstein fashion, Victor brings his dog back to life, but he doesn’t want anyone to know about Sparky’s reincarnation. But soon enough, one of his classmates finds out and blabs to the rest of the kids. Since there’s a competitive science fair coming up, all the kids want to steal Victor’s idea to bring things back to life for their project, and before you know it the whole town is being terrorized by undead pets.
Leave it to Tim Burton to turn a twisted horror story into a twisted family film. I want to start by saying that the movie looks absolutely gorgeous in black & white. Bravo to Disney for letting Burton shoot the movie the way he wanted to. The character and creature design are fantastic and undeniably Burton. Every handmade figure is a work of art. The look of the movie was so phenomenal that I got worried when the movie began sort of flat. I liked the opening film-within-a-film, but PARANORMAN already did that (and better) for the beginning of that film. The character interaction and jokes were kind of obvious and disappointingly bland at first. Because PARANORMAN had a tremendous amount of energy in the first half, this movie felt like it was moving at a small crawl. I still liked how many of the characters resembled famous movie monsters (Igor, Frankenstein), and I was surprised that Burton got away with having a stereotypical Asian character named Toshiaki (he was pretty funny however), complete with the typical Asian voice speaking in broken English. That took balls. I wonder if there will be complaints about that, cause if that was made in the 50’s, there would be a disclaimer on the DVD now saying how that this was a product of its time (like many of the Tom & Jerry and Looney Tunes DVD’s have).
Back to the movie…. So yeah, the movie starts a little rough, but it’s never bad. It’s wonderful to look at. But once Victor digs Sparky up from the pet cemetery and brings him back to life, the movie also slowly begins to come to life. We get scenes of Sparky running around the neighborhood chasing what could be the scariest looking cat in film history. These moments have no dialogue and reminded me a bit of those adorable Pluto cartoons from the 40’s and 50’s, except with the dog’s tail falling off once in a while. Sparky is a marvelous creation, even if the design is curiously close to The Family Dog (an 80’s cartoon that Burton produced). Victor himself as a character is mostly bland but fortunately Burton surrounds him with several assorted weirdos. Love the science teacher, the mayor is a pretty creepy creation, and the little girl who owns the scary cat is hilariously eerie, with her big bug eyes.
Once the movie gets to the monster stuff is when it really gets going. Where I felt PARANORMAN got bogged down in the second half, FRANKENWEENIE picks up the pace at a breakneck speed. In most of his films (even the ones I love), Burton tends to lose momentum in the third act. That’s absolutely not the case here. The final 30 minutes are its strongest. The climax, which has monsters from the pet graveyard running amok, is a riot! It may be scary for some smaller kids as it does get pretty intense, but the sense of fun is always there. This would be a great way to introduce horror elements to a kid because Burton makes it fun. Mutated sea monkeys come across like Gremlins and a Turtle increases in size like Godzilla. There are a few other movie references to be found throughout the film. The crowd I saw it with were hooting and hollering at the finale.
The script is pretty standard fare and nothing special, but it works for the story. The voice work is quite good. Martin Short does a few voices, Winona Ryder returns to Burton territory and of course it wouldn’t be a Burton film if Catherine O’Hara didn’t do a voice. Martin Landau is also a nice addition as the science teacher. There’s an interesting subplot involving his being fired from the school for getting kids to think out of the norm that brings up some interesting issues. Danny Elfman’s score sounds like, well, a Danny Elfman score. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before, but it fits the movie proper.
Burton followers will most likely eat it up. It’s not classic Burton. It is, however, pretty decent Burton. The beginning is a bit sluggish, but don’t worry, it ends up being quite an effective creature feature by the time it’s over. That second half rescues what was turning out to be a ho-hum experience. I can’t wait to bring my 9-year old (an avid Burton fan, her favorite being SLEEPY HOLLOW). She’s going to eat it up. As for other kids… I’m not sure. If they enjoyed PARANORMAN and MONSTER HOUSE, they should be okay with this. Even though it’s not among his best films, I’m just happy that Tim Burton has finally made a movie I can recommend to people again. It’s a fun little monster movie. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action.
Running time: 1hr 26min