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Review: Frankenweenie (2012)

Frankenweenie (2012)

Directed by: Tim Burton

Premise: An animated feature-length remake of Tim Burton’s 1984 short film. Young Victor Frankenstein (voice of Charlie Tahan) brings his dog back to life after the pet is hit by a car. Other children in the neighborhood imitate Victor’s experiment with disastrous results.

What Works: Director Tim Burton has had a troubled output as of late. Most of his feature films over the past decade have been disappointing remakes and he hasn’t made a truly great film since Big Fish in 2003. His recent efforts like Alice in Wonderland and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have been bloated exercises in art direction and pointless special effects with none of the charm, wit, or perverse creativity that marked his earlier work. In that respect, Frankenweenie is something of a return to form for Burton. Frankenweenie is an adaptation of a short film he made before he was a feature film director and this film comes across as an attempt by Burton to recapture his roots. The film is generally successful at doing that and Frankenweenie includes many of the kinds of visuals and storytelling themes that made Burton’s work alluring in the first place such as the alienated emo hero and the fairytale story in a suburban setting. Unlike the live action short film, the 2012 version of Frankenweenie is a stop-motion animation picture and the decision to make it this way is a smart one by the filmmakers. This movie has offbeat and at times grisly themes involving children and animals but the stop-motion form gives the film a charm and a fantastical distance that live action does not and it softens the subject matter in ways that make the horrific elements more accessible.

What Doesn’t: The 2012 version of Frankenweenie is bigger and more elaborate than the 1984 short film but it is not necessarily better. The story is expanded to fit a feature length but even at eighty-seven minutes, Frankenweenie comes across as padded. There just isn’t much to it. After the dog is reanimated nothing really happens for the bulk of the story and the movie is often boring. The filmmakers attempt to give Frankenweenie a spectacular climax but it is not the ending that the film is leading toward and the big finale is bewildering for the wrong reasons. The film lacks a creative vision. Compared to Burton’s other work in animation such as Corpse Bride, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and even the animated short “Vincent,” Frankenweenie comes across as uninspired. The characters are stock Burton caricatures and the quality of the animation often pales in comparison to Burton’s other films. The other major problem of the film is its lack of nerve. Frankenweenie is intended as a mash-up of Frankenstein and Pet Sematary but the filmmakers incorporate references to those films without acknowledging the thematic points of the stories. This becomes most apparent in the film’s copout of an ending. Frankenweenie screenwriter John August has defended the ending, claiming it was done for the sake of the family audience but that is a condescending explanation. Quite often the best family films aren’t the ones that avoid difficult endings. Rather, it is precisely because stories like Old Yeller and Charlotte’s Web confront the audience with tough conclusions that they have endured as classics. The filmmakers of Frankenweenie don’t do that and the film is compromised for it. It incorporates big issues like mortality and learning to accept loss but the filmmakers don’t direct those themes to any worthwhile end.

Bottom Line: Tim Burton fans will want to check out Frankenweenie, if only to see how it compares to the original short and how it fits into Burton’s filmography. But it is an underwhelming film that has neither the style befitting Burton’s work nor the substance that the story calls for.

Episode: #409 (October 14, 2012)