When it comes to Tim Burton, I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I have some fairly mixed views on the guy. On the one hand, I absolutely adore the dark style he brings to his movies. They show a twisted flair that’s simultaneously gothic and childishly fun, making them perfect for Halloween. It’s for this reason that “The Nightmare Before Christmas” blew me away when I was a kid and remains one of my favorite movies to this day. (Technically, he didn’t direct the film, but he did conceive, write, and produce it.)
At the same time, they’re also riddled with annoying kitsch that manages to make movies like “Dark Shadows,” and even parts of “Mars Attacks” and “Edward Scissorhands” downright irritating. Plus, for a director who made a name for himself with his bizarre creativity, he has spent most of his recent career hashing out remakes and reboots. Admittedly, the last Tim Burton movie I really liked was “Sweeney Todd,” but when I heard that he was going to be directing another stop motion animated film, I was optimistic. Maybe he’d bring back the same nostalgia and creativity with which he’d infused “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Corpse Bride.” And hey, Halloween’s right around the corner. Maybe it could get me in the festive spirit. Unfortunately, this film fails to make much of an impact as anything other than evidence that old Tim really is losing it.
The movie follows a kid by the name of Victor Frankenstein (real creative, Tim). Victor’s a nerdy, alienated boy who spends his time making home movies with his dog Sparky. One day, Sparky gets hit by a car, leaving Victor depressed and heartbroken. But then, inspired by his eccentric new science teacher Mr. Rzkruski, Victor vows to bring his dog back to life and ends up succeeding in his strange endeavor. Now, Victor must deal with all the problems his re-animated best friend brings about, including jealous classmates, an overzealous neighbor, and ignorant townsfolk.
If that plot synopsis sounded thin, that’s kind of the problem. The movie isn’t even 90 minutes long, and it almost seems like they were trying to keep the film as simple as possible. The premise plays out in the first 20 minutes; after that, the pace grinds to a halt. It isn’t until Victor’s classmates try to imitate his experiments that the plot gets some drive. Granted, this slow period doesn’t last too long, but it does make painfully obvious how bare bones the world of this film really is. Even once the third act kicks in and things become more threatening, we’re never really given enough of a sense of danger to care about what’s happening.
Of course, an animated children’s movie doesn’t need to constantly throw stuff at its audience to keep them invested in what’s going on. It just needs to maintain interesting characters and a unique world. Here’s where the biggest problem of this movie lies: the world it tries to establish is ultimately pretty milquetoast. At first, the movie seems promising with its lack of color, retro setting, and array of characters modeled after movie monsters. But in most cases, Burton doesn’t do anything with these weird people.
Early in the film, we’re introduced to Elsa Van Hellsing, Victor’s gloomy neighbor. We’re led to believe that she’ll become some kind of a love interest for Victor, but after her first scene, the two don’t have so much as a single conversation on screen. At another point, Victor’s eccentric science teacher is fired for filling his students’ minds with “dangerous ideas of science” (in a scene that verges on making a comment about the debate surrounding the teaching of evolution in pubic schools, but then completely drops it). We’re left expecting Mr. Rzkruski to return and play a role at the climax of the film, or at least reappear at the end once the townspeople have learned their lesson, but no, he’s never seen again.
Just to give you an example of this movie’s strange approach to its characters, there is one girl with wide eyes and a zombie-like stare who carries around a cat that looks just like her. It’s revealed early on that her cat can tell the future, and whenever something important is going to happen to one of her classmates, the cat poops out the first letter of his or her name, which the girl then carries around, showing it to whomever has that initial. This is all introduced only for the character to be shoved into the background for the rest of the film.
All this wouldn’t be such a problem if Victor weren’t so dull. After seeing the film, I can’t really say anything identifiable about his character. He likes science, he’s quiet, and he really likes his dog. Other than that, he is a cardboard cutout and doesn’t have any kind of arc. Early in the film, we’re shown that because he’s so reclusive and shy, he doesn’t have any friends, which has started to worry his parents. This problem isn’t addressed throughout the film, and by the end, it hasn’t reached any kind of resolution. It doesn’t help that he’s given a monotonous voice and has been animated to appear half asleep. Granted, his relationship with his dog is genuinely touching, and Sparky himself remains a fun character to watch, but it really isn’t enough to make the film gripping.
I will give credit to this film’s style, because it certainly does have a distinctive one. Just like in “Ed Wood” or “Mars Attacks,” Burton makes his sense of 50s nostalgia pretty clear. Obviously, there’s the black-and-white look combined with retro decoration, costumes, and settings. But the film’s constant throwbacks to old-school horror movies are even more fun to watch. Once again, the characters that resemble Igor and Frankenstein always managed to get a laugh from me every time they were on screen. Furthermore, when more monsters are thrown into the mix, the film pays homage to everything from the Wolfman to Japanese giant monster movies. There’s even a scene in which Victor’s parents are watching a live action Christopher Lee Dracula movie. One great moment of the kind of dark, strange humor we’ve come to expect from Burton consists of Sparky consuming a fly, only for it to crawl out of one of the stitch marks in his body. It’s just such a shame that more wasn’t done with all this to really make it a fun, interesting movie.
Don’t get me wrong—this movie does have some fantastic moments. But almost all of these are just empty promises. If you really love Tim Burton or want a spooky kids’ movie to get you in the Halloween spirit, then I won’t tell you not to see “Frankenweenie.” But I will warn you that you’ll probably forget it about an hour after you leave the cinema. If “Frankenweenie” were stranger, funnier, more touching, or if it had simply tried harder, it could have been great. As it stands, it’s pretty bland.