Starring: Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder
Director: Tim Burton
File it under the perils of auteurism. Sometimes, when a director becomes a brand, familiarity breeds contempt. How else to explain the calcification of Tim Burton from kooky visionary of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s to the boiler-plate blockbuster hack of recent years? Burton’s recipe became awfully stale: Take a household name property, add some quirk, Helena Bonham Carter, a Danny Elfman score, and then let Johnny Depp do something weird. After Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I never wanted to see a Tim Burton movie again. After Alice in Wonderland, I never wanted to see a movie again, period.
But Burton showed surprising signs of life this past summer with his unfairly dismissed Dark Shadows, a sly goth soap opera in which the comically convoluted source material complemented Burton’s notorious inability to remain interested in storylines for more than 20 minutes at a time. More importantly, the movie had a kinky subversive quality that’s been missing in the filmmaker’s work for well over a decade. Dark Shadows felt like he was going back to his roots. Frankenweenie really is Burton going back to his roots—literally. A feature-length remake of the 1984 short that famously got him fired from Disney, this very much the work of an older man revisiting the obsessions of his youth, struggling at times to reconnect with them.
Shot in gorgeous black-and-white old-school stop-motion animation, Frankenweenie looks like a relic from another era. More an encyclopedia of influences than a stand-alone picture of its own, it’s a stylistic mash-up of German expressionist shadows, antiseptically manicured suburban lawns and ancient creature-feature flourishes ranging from the 1930s to the 1950s. In other words, all the component parts that formed Burton’s peculiar sensibility in the first place.
The extremely slender story follows young Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan), an awkward science nut whose best friend is a hyperactive pooch named Sparky. After his dog gets run over by a car during a Little League game gone dreadfully wrong—an upsetting set-piece helmed as tastefully as possible—Victor seeks solace in his attic experiments, misinterpreting a few suggestions from his imposing new teacher Mr. Rzykurski. (In keeping with the film’s Cuisinart of allusions, the character is designed to be a ringer for Vincent Price, yet voiced by Martin Landau doing his Bela Legosi accent from Burton’s Ed Wood.) Victor harnesses one of his neighborhood’s freakishly frequent lightning storms, zapping Sparky back to life. The stitched-up canine keeps losing his tail and an ear or two from time to time, but for the most part he’s back to being the boy’s rambunctious best friend. Some delightful scenes in Frankenweenie run for a surprising amount of time without any dialogue whatsoever, following Sparky’s charming flirtation with the poodle next door. Naturally, she’s got a shock of white in her hair a la Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein.
But you can’t keep such a mischievous dog secret for very long, and trouble arises when the rest of New Holland’s neighborhood kids want in on Victor’s scientific method. Burton begins scrambling old horror tropes all over the place, with a variety of freakishly re-animated pets wreaking havoc on the city’s fair. Amusing as it is to tick off all the nods to everything from Gojira to Mars Attacks, the action feels curiously inert. Editing rhythms keep threatening to build to a manic energy that never quite arrives.
Expanded from the original short by Burton’s frequent screenwriter John August, Frankenweenie suffers from the lurching that’s hobbled so much of the director’s late career output. Mr. Rzykurski is granted a hilarious, spot-on monologue about the townspeople’s intellectually backward fear of science, but then the movie’s magical elements undercut every point he tried to make. There’s a nonstarter of a romance with Victor’s goth-girl neighbor, played by Winona Ryder, of course. In true Tim Burton fashion, the story wanders afield in too many different directions. And the less said about some cat poop business, the better.
And yet, I could look at Frankenweenie for hours.
There must be great satisfaction in this for Burton, getting Disney to finance a feature-length version of the very movie they shitcanned him for making almost 30 years ago. Here’s hoping that the full-circle nature of the project proved therapeutic, and maybe next time around, we might see something genuinely new.