In a lot of ways, the black and white, animated "Frankenweenie" feels like Tim Burton's most personal movie to date: how else would you describe this loving homage to classic horror monsters featuring a lonely, sensitive, and creative boy in the mid-60's grappling with loss in a close-minded town? Burton resurrected his own 1984 short about young Victor Frankenstein using the power of science to resurrect his poor dead dog Sparky (with a design that even recalls the Burton-produced animated series "Family Dog").
So why then, does "Frankenweenie" 2012 feel so incomplete and cobbled together with loose ideas? And more troubling, why didn't a movie about a dead dog (and the boy who loves him) completely and totally break my heart?
Like the original short, "Frankenweenie's" focus is on young Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan), a bright, creative type who likes to feature his beloved dog in his homemade monster movies. Victor's parents (SCTV vets Martin Short and Catherine O'Hara--both so easily warm and funny) worry that their son might need to have more friends than just his dog. Meanwhile, a new teacher, the stern Eastern European Mr. Rzykruski (Martin Landau) begins educating Victor's class on the wonders of electricity and we learn that the town of New Holland is plagued by frequent lightning strikes. So when Sparky is hit by a car in an unfortunate accident, Victor figures out a way to save his best friend.
"Frankeweenie's" story, from a script by frequent Burton collaborator John August isn't really about anything, beyond the plot, unfortunately. Some things happen to Victor, several of them connected, but they lack any sort of connective emotional tissue. What do we make of the truncated story about the small town, led by the brittle mayor Mr. Burgermeister (Short, again) leading a charge against Mr. Rzykruski of over-educating the town's children? Because "Frankenweenie" sure doesn't know what to do with this plot, banishing this grimly funny character from the movie after something like two scenes. And what about the monster attack that drives the third act as Victor's classmates contrive to resurrect their own pets in order to win a science competition that in all likelihood wouldn't be happening in Mr. Rzykruski's absence?
And most problematic of all, what do we make of Victor's story? In the beginning, Victor's father tells him that death is essentially part of life, and through the film, we see the poor resurrected Sparky falling apart in his new post-life. But instead of following through on that idea, we're told that sometimes adults can be wrong, cue credits.
It's not like Burton didn't have the tools at his disposal to make something great here: his voice cast is fantastic, in particular Landau (should have a regular, in-character science show as Mr. Rzykruski), and young Atticus Shaffer as E. Gore. Across the board, the cast does great work, with Tahan giving his Victor Frankenstein the sweet, intelligent voice the character demands. It's also a lovely movie to look at, the monster designs a nice evolution of the creepy creature style we've all come to expect from Burton, giving the last act "Gremlins"-style mayhem (well, with a little less death and destruction).
It's hard not to get worked up when such a beautifully-shot stop-motion film (made to honor so many of the classic movie monsters many of us love), feels so incomplete. This particular monstrosity, built with a little Universal horror here, a little Edward Gorey there, and some "Mad Monster party" thrown in for good measure, is missing a heart. "Frankenweenie" only had to give me a reason to love it, a reason to care, but in the end, Burton sent what could have been one of his most beautiful creations out into the world, unfinished and seemingly unloved.
Special features and presentation
- Original Short: "Captain Sparky vs. the Flying Saucers" (02:26, HD): This is similar to the one Victor shows his parents at the opening of the film, a cute and deliberately lo-fi adventure with Victor attempting to corral an excitable Sparky into being the star of an alien invasion movie.
- Miniatures In Motion: Bringing "Frankenweenie" to Life (23:06, HD): Burton and company talk about working with the London-based 3 Mills Studios in getting "Frankenweenie" made, with producer Allison Abbate serving as hostess and guide. It's a nice look at the original miniatures and drawings that went into the production.
- "Frankenweenie" Touring Exhibit (04:36, HD): If you happened to be at last year's Comic-Con, you might have seen this exhibit featuring some of the sets, art, and props from the film. This short is a brief walkthrough of some of the content there.
- Original Live-action "Frankenweenie" short (30:03, SD): You can see where it all began in this early live-action work from Burton. The ending is weird there, too.
- Plain White T's "Pet Sematary" Music Video (03:54, HD): A limp, terrible cover of the Ramones' classic. You're better off listening to the original here.
- "Frankenweenie" Touring Exhibit
- Plain White T's "Pet Sematary" Music Video
"Frankenweenie" is available now on 3D Blu-ray, 2D Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD now from Disney.