By Chaz Lipp

I might as well say it up front. I wanted to love Tim Burton’s latest stop-motion film, Frankenweenie, but I ended up with very mixed feelings. After greatly anticipating the film since the first trailers were released, maybe my expectations were simply too high. But I strongly feel that this simple story of a young boy, Victor (Charlie Tahan), who resurrects his deceased pet dog (à la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) veers wildly off the rails in its third act. Even worse, it suffers from a seriously flawed conclusion (which I’ll discuss later in detail, so consider this an advance spoiler alert).

The original Frankenweeniewas a 30-minute live-action short film directed by Burton in 1984. The basic plot was the same as the new one, an homage/parody of James Whales’ 1931 classic film adaptation of the Shelley novel. For the new version, John August’s screenplay huffs and puffs, struggling to blow the material up to feature length. He never quite achieves the desired result (even for an 87-minute film). Don’t get me wrong though, it’s not all bad – far from it, in fact. The first two-thirds are pitch-perfect. Victor and his parents are clearly a tight knit family. His mother, Susan (Catherine O’Hara), and father, Ben (Martin Short), understand that their shy son has an uncommonly strong bond with his dog, Sparky. When Sparky is struck by a car and dies, Victor is heartbroken.

The future gets a little brighter when, in science class, Victor learns about the regenerative potential of electricity from his teacher, Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau). Driven solely by his undying love for Sparky, rather than any ambition to make scientific history, Victor conducts an experiment one stormy night. The result is a reanimated Sparky, who is a little worse for wear after his coffin was exhumed at the local pet cemetery. The problem facing Victor, it quickly becomes clear, is how he will hide his secret from not only his parents, but all of New Holland (the small town that serves as Frankenweenie’s setting).

These sections of Frankenweenieare really a lot of fun, with many memorably designed (and voiced) characters. Elsa Van Helsing (Winona Ryder) is the girl who lives next door to Victor, whose poodle befriends Sparky. She lives with her uncle, the mayor of New Holland, who takes the annual town carnival, Dutch Days, very seriously. It’s during the Dutch Days fest that the town is turned upside down. Once Victor’s classmate, Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer), discovers that Victor brought Sparky back from the dead, the secret spreads among the rest of the students. They’re all competing in the school science fair and, not to be outdone by Victor, go to great lengths to replicate the reanimation experiment.

Up to that point, I was fully engrossed in the Frankenweenie world. The look, atmosphere, characters, and Danny Elfman score are all classic Burton. I loved the voice performances, especially Tahan’s endearingly low-key work as Victor. I happen to be an incredibly easy crier when it comes to anything involving pet dogs in peril, and the opening act really earned those tears. The fantasy of wanting just a little more time with a beloved, departed pet was captured perfectly. And unlike so many animated films these days, there’s really no concession to overly cute, kid-friendly moments. Burton and company keep things very macabre, at least stylistically, allowing the true emotions to seep through in a believable way. In fact, I think Frankenweenie is, if anything, a very tough sell when it comes to the youngest moviegoing demographic. It just might be a tad too spooky and weird for very young kids.

But here’s where the spoilers come in, so stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie. The third act gets out of hand as the kids of New Holland begin reanimating various animals (even Sea Monkeys), but this time everything goes awry and the animals turn into monstrous beasts. A turtle becomes a Godzilla-esque reptilian giant. The Sea Monkeys (aka brine shrimp) become freaky, scampering little monsters. It’s all pretty fun to look at, appreciating the technical craft that obviously went into the stop-motion animation. But it stomps the heart and soul right out of the movie. It’s a show-offy diversion that doesn’t match the tone of the first two acts. And after all the townspeople have been terrorized by these crazy creatures, it’s a little hard to swallow when they decide to persecute poor little Sparky.

Continuing with the spoilers, I want to say normally I don’t reveal a film’s ending in a review. So this is only intended for readers who have seen the film already. By the end of the film, after the climax at the burning windmill that the townspeople have cornered Victor and Sparky in, Burton had a perfect chance to recover from the indulgences of the multi-monster rampage at the carnival. Sparky has bravely, loyally saved Victor’s life by pulling him from the fiery windmill just in the nick of time. But Sparky himself dies (again) as the windmill collapses. A firefighter solemnly carries his body out of the smoldering wreckage. Here we have the perfect moment for Victor to finally let go and let Sparky rest in peace. By the same token, the whole movie would’ve been elevated by this message of acceptance. But no, a group of townfolk hooks Sparky’s body up to their car batteries and juices the poor thing back to life once again. Throughout the movie, Burton sowed the seeds of Sparky’s eventual final passing, most poignantly when the little dog instinctively finds his way back to his grave one night and goes to sleep on it. It’s simply too much when everyone rallies to rouse the deceased hero of the story once again. Even Victor finally seems at peace with the situation when it initially seems that the car battery jumpstart has failed. I know the original Frankenweenie ended the same way, but if the point in expanding it to feature length was to deepen the concept and make it more meaningful, this “happy” ending rings disappointingly false.
Chaz Lipp

2 thoughts on “Movie Review: Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie

  1. My kids enjoyed this movie. They haven’t seen Frankenstein yet, I enjoyed the references in the movie.

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