Tim Burton is the creative, macabre mind behind several well-known, but creepy films, such as “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
He has been waiting since 1984 to remake his short film “Frankenweenie” into a full-length feature, and this Halloween season finally got his chance.
But is this “resurrected” version (sorry, couldn’t help the pun) a creepy classic with a family twist – like “James and the Giant Peach” – or a diabolical dud, like his last film, “Dark Shadows”?
“Frankenweenie” is the surprisingly heart-warming tale of a boy who just doesn’t want to let go of his beloved, but recently killed dog, Sparky. So when young Victor Frankenstein realizes a hefty dose of electricity can “fetch” Sparky (oops, did it again) back from the dead, he hopes his science experiment succeeds.
The movie’s stop-motion animation and black-and-white imaginings are captivating, both sweetly nostalgic on one hand and slightly sinister on the other. The film is filled with fun allusions to classic horror films, including, but not limited to: a neighbor named Van Helsing; the appearance of the Mummy, the Invisible Man, Dracula and even Godzilla; and endearing, memorable characters clearly modeled after horror legends Peter Lorre and Vincent Price.
One scene in particular, in which the bizarre students of New Holland Elementary speculate on why their town is so plagued by frequent lightning strikes, is funny and creepy and brilliant and absolutely the best of what Tim Burton brings to filmmaking.
The messages in the film are also praiseworthy, as young Victor fights at first to hold on to his dearly departed Sparky, but learns at last to let him go.
“Frankenweenie” also includes examples of self-sacrifice and heroism and contains an interesting discussion on the nature of science:
“Science is not good or bad,” Frankenstein’s teacher tells him, “but it can be used both ways. That is why you must always be careful.”
The film then demonstrates exactly the difference between well-intentioned scientific discovery and the pursuit of scientific power for power’s sake. The moral lessons in the film are solid.
With all that going for it, “Frankenweenie” could have been something special, a stop-motion holiday classic for Halloween the way “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a Christmas favorite.
Except that it was kind of … boring.
So much of the film’s premise, and so many of its scenes were already shown in the movie’s relentless advertising campaign. So much of the film was just so slowly paced, I fought to stay awake. The jokes were almost all subtle and too distantly spaced, the action of the finale was not really believable or exciting, and the script – except for the Vincent Price science teacher – was completely forgettable.
With such great characters and intriguing animation, the movie just spent too much time watching a dog run around and do doggie things instead of making these human characters come alive and drive the story forward. “Boy and his dog” is a classic storyline, but without some fresh approach to it, the tale just seems a bit stale.
In the end, “Frankenweenie” looks like a Tim Burton film trying to be nostalgic and sweet, but like those giant lollipops of yesteryear, a few licks might hearken back to childhood, but now that I’m an adult, I couldn’t possibly finish the whole thing.
A note about children: The film has a few scary moments, but these aren’t nearly as shocking as the scenes (yes, plural) where Sparky dies. The emotion is so intense and in your face, it may traumatize some younger viewers.
- “Frankenweenie,” rated PG, contains no spoken profanities or obscenities.
- The film’s only sexual reference or innuendo is a pair of dolls who kiss in a home movie after the damsel in distress is rescued.
- The movie contains some cartoon violence, though this takes a darker turn in the film’s action finale, as rogue monsters smash, crash, burn and otherwise wreak mayhem on the suburban village of New Holland. A few scenes of the monsters dying are a bit gory, and there is a humorous scene in which a girl reads omens in the shape of her pet cat’s poop.
- Surprisingly the film has almost no religious or occult content outside of the general theme of bringing dead things back to life (though this is done with electricity only), the mention of something being an “omen” and a tombstone in the shape of a cross.