Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau
This is the sad state of affairs of Tim Burton. Early in his career, Mr.Burton had a heart that he wore proudly on his sleeve. But now? That uniqueness that was once cherished by a select few has become a commercialized and common place. He simply has nothing left to say, so he tries to compensate with lavish costumes and elaborate set designs. Frankenweenie is certainly not a huge mistake–like Alice in Wonderland or Dark Shadows–but considering that it’s a remake of a short he did in his early years, it left a bitter feeling in my gut. His heart and soul played an integral role in the filmmaking process of his early works. These two traits were unequivocally the most important part of films like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, The Nightmare Before Christmas (though he didn’t direct) and Ed Wood. Frankenweenie is no different, but it results in an even more insulting and ultimately contradictory ending that cheats us emotionally and seems very un-Burton-like in principle.
It’s a simple story that follows the same plot line as the classic novel, Frankenstein. Burton even goes as far as naming his protagonist–a young boy–Victor Frankenstein (voiced well by Charlie Tahan). Victor has a passion for science that his teacher, Mr.Rzykruski (a sort of mad scientist from Eastern Europe voiced by Martin Landau) takes note of and encourages. As you might have imagined, Frankenweenie is indeed Victor’s dog. Their relationship is without a doubt the most fleshed out and the most touching part of the movie. It makes the loss of his dog all the more upsetting. Victor loses his beloved dog Sparky when he darts into the road trying to fetch a ball. Like so many of us, Victor goes through a dark mourning period (unfortunately, in the film’s case, it lasts in a very brief montage) after Sparky is buried in an animal cemetery. Later, in science class, Mr.Rzykruski teaches the class about the effects of electricity on the body. This, of course, makes Victor spring into action with the desire to bring back his best friend.
As always, Burton has created a rich world filled with dreary landscapes, black and white movies, melancholy characters–who also appear to be not unlike the ones he created early in his career. Unfortunately, some of these characters are merely there to fill in the backdrop, and one of them is even portrayed in a borderline racist fashion (Toshiaki). Burton does make an interesting choice with his thematic material: he attempts to move away from the “outsider” perspective (though it’s still there). This time, science plays a prominent role in the theme of Frankenweenie. Mr.Rzykruski is a weird teacher, but one that tries to instill a love for science in his students. Weirdly enough, it works for the most part, since more than half his class seems bent on winning the upcoming science fair. It is his undoing, however, when a series of events leads him to being sacked. He makes an impassioned speech that tries to force the parents to see the value of a scientific mind. It’s probably one of the funniest scenes.
While the 3-D is certainly well-done, the film suffers because of the predictability of the story. As it unfolds, one would have a difficult time not being able to guess what will happen next. Granted, Burton has never been a great storyteller. His strengths were his sense of individuality and his heart always being in the right place. Frankenweenie doesn’t make much of a case for itself being anything more than another overblown animated film. In most of his early successes, his characters were both palpably real and unique in their own ways. Now, it seems like each one of those characters has been molded to shape whatever film he’s working on–even their appearances are similar. The ending is what really made me feel bitter towards Frankenweenie. One can usually anticipate the ending when you’re watching a film geared towards children, so I suppose I can’t complain too much. I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s certainly the exact opposite of what I thought he was trying to express. This is a large problem. It shows us what little thought Burton put into developing a spine for it. Beautiful 3-D aside, it is ultimately a muddled, confused film that doesn’t know where it wants to stand. This is simply another half-hearted attempt at regaining that early Burton passion.