Tim Burton hasn’t been having a very good decade. After starting it off rather badly with a needless Planet of the Apes remake he hasn’t made a single film which comes close to his best work of the past, though the aforementioned Apes movie is still by far the low point of his career. Sure, there have been a couple of pretty good films, Big Fish and especially The Corpse Bride, but the rest is just okay at best. Well, now Burton has gone back to his roots by making a feature-length movie based on his 1984 short Frankenweenie. But is it a return to form?
Frankenweenie tells the tale of a young boy named Victor Frankenstien, a loner who loves his dog and likes to make short films with his toys but doesn’t have many real friends. One day, his dog comes to an untimely demise and Victor understandably has a hard time accepting it. But then, inspired by his eccentric science teachers’ lecture about the power of lightning and electricity, he decides to perform a little experiment and manages to revive his little dog with a little help from his mother’s kitchen tools. The experiment is a success, but of course it has its consequences.
This may sound like classic Tim Burton stuff, and it is. The movie has his fingerprints all over it. All the characters have big eyes and many of them look like an animated version of Tim Burton, especially Victor, who looks very much like a child version of Burton. There’s also the loner hero and several little nods to Burton’s older work (one supporting character looks like one of the ghouls from Beetlejuice, for example). There’s clearly an autobiographical element here.
But sadly, Frankenweenie doesn’t turn out to be the return to form one was hoping for. It’s not bad at all, and certainly a considerable improvement over the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But it’s still a disappointingly conventional unmemorable movie.
The main problem is simply that there’s not much of a story. Victor revives his dog but the story doesn’t really develop much beyond that, except for a subplot involving the other kids performing a similar experiment, turning the movie into some sort of Gremlins clone in the final act. In terms of plot and story everything here is strictly by the book, with few surprises and a really conflicted message which seems to be that you should only mess with mother nature if you do it with the right intentions.
Still, there’s a lot to like and Frankenweenie remains engaging throughout. For one thing, it’s near impossible to hate a stop-motion movie as that’s something that takes a lot of care to make and is an all too rare genre these days. The animation looks lovely, filled with wonderful details in each frame, down to the way the hairs move on the animals. The movie is also beautifully designed with lots of great little bit,s like a fire-hydrant shaped tombstone for a dead dog and a female dog with “Bride of Frankestein” hair.
The voice actors also all do a great job and bring a lot of charm to the movie. It’s great fun hearing voices of Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Landau and Winona Ryder, who nail all their characters and bring a little bit of heart and soul to otherwise rather threadbare characters which mostly consist of thin stereotypes (the fat kid, the smart Japanese kid, the evil fat mayor etc.).
Final verdict: Not exactly a great return to form for Tim Burton as it’s rather conventional, with a thin story and even thinner characters. But thanks to lovely stop-motion animation and terrific voice work, Frankenweenie still entertains and is a little bit better than most of the films Burton has made this century.