Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Tim Burton started his career off with a live-action short film 'Frankenweenie' in 1984, and almost three decades later, gets the chance to do a full length feature based on that film. Burton not only pays homage to the Frankenstein movies, but many other monster movies, though this black and white stop motion animation feature often feels like it has overstretched its concept.
In the feature film, Victor Frankenstein (voiced by Charlie Tahan) resides in a small suburban American town called New Holland, and his only friend is his dog named Sparky. Sparky dies after getting run down by a car, but all is not lost. Victor is inspired by his science teacher, a creepy Eastern European guy who comes from a country where janitors win Nobel Prizes, to revive Sparky using electricity. Sparky comes back from the dead, but Victor's experiments have not gone unnoticed by his classmates. The brats are soon reviving their dead animals, which soon cause the entire town to be in danger.
New Holland bears a lot of the hallmarks of Burton's small towns. Everything is a little too neat, but underneath there's rot eating away at it, and behind their polished front lawns the townsfolk have a small-mindedness and are not very receptive to new things and strangeness.
Victor is a typical Burton protagonist: Creative, alone, sensitive, misunderstood, and with a resemblance to Johnny Depp in Burton's films such as ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Sweeney Todd’.
Victor isn't alone in his weirdness though. There's the Igor-ish Edgar (Atticus Shaffer), who is eager to divulge Victor's secrets. There is Elsa (Winona Ryder), the niece of the small-minded and arrogant mayor (Martin Short). There's also a weird girl whose cat has prophetic dreams.
The film builds and jumps like lightning between several points. It is occasionally madly inventive, but never reaches the originality of the Burton-produced ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, or the anarchistic wildness of ‘Beetlejuice’. The film sparks, but never flares, and the reference to horror classics is the only glue holding the film up.
The black and white tone has a claustrophobic feel, as Burton uses shadows to give the whole film a sense of portent. The ending, where several different monsters are revived, appears to be a necessary Disney finish, and just seems concocted to get the most of of the film.
There are few real laughs on offer in ‘Frankenweenie’, even though the character and creature designs have their own sense of charm. The simple message of a boy's love for his dog overlaps with several other messages that Burton and screenwriter John August try to stitch together, and like its titular hero, the film is patched together from other bits of Burton films and monster movies. It's a likable creation, but certainly not one of Burton's best.