I’m no great fan of Tim Burton. There are films of his that I greatly enjoy (Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, and Edward Scissorhands spring to mind), but when I look at his work overall I see an insistence on repeating himself over and over. There’s no better example of this than his comedic overuse of Johnny Depp. Look, Depp is a versatile actor, sure, but is it really that hard to at least try different actors in your lead roles? Now, I say that having listed three Depp vehicles as favorite Tim Burton movies, so I’m not saying that the partnership hasn’t worked in most instances. But seriously Tim, maybe you two need to take a break.
Frankenweenie, Burton’s latest film, does not star Johnny Depp, and lo and behold, in my opinion it’s his best feature in nearly two decades. I think that Burton is so ubiquitous because he always has a very specific vision, and that vision often looks strange when translated on screen. So we get these very bizarre movies, with directorial choices that probably made a lot of sense in Burton’s head. However, that only speaks to live-action. In animation, anything is possible, and his visions can be perfectly translated to the screen. In Frankenweenie, every character looks like a Tim Burton sketch. Unlike, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this movie feels very direct and personal. Maybe it’s also the stop-motion, which lends the whole thing this home-made feel.
Victor, the main character, could very well be a young Burton (apparently the dog is based on a pet Burton had as a child), somewhat in appearance, but mainly in personality. The first thing we see in the film is a crude stop-motion monster movie that Victor has made with the help of Sparky, his dog. Right away, we get a sense of who this kid is. That can be said for many of the characters in Frankenweenie, with one or two notable exceptions. Most of the characters are drawn with a broad brush, and the kids are essentially caricatures, but none of them were outwardly annoying, so I’ll let it slide.
Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. The “Igor” character in this film is a hunchbacked kid named Edgar (Edgar “E” Gore. Ha.), and I cringed every time he was on screen. I don’t know if they got a child actor to attempt some unplaceable accent, or if the voice actor was asleep that day, but he was insufferable. The animation on him wasn’t particularly good either. His facial expression never changes from a wide smirk, which you can see him do in the trailer, even when the character is supposed to be anxious, or frightened, or angry. It really bugged me, but at least he’s not in the film that much, so there’s that.
Other than that, of course, the animation was pretty phenomenal. In fact, it was almost too good. I loved Coraline from a few years ago, and while the animation in that film was never jerky, you could always see the craftsmanship that went in to each and every detail of the production. I loved noticing little things like that when watching the movie. Normally, you shouldn’t want to be drawn out of the movie by anything, but I think that it adds to the experience. I never saw anything like that in Frankenweenie, which left me kinda bummed. I love stop-motion, but this felt very CG to me, especially considering some of the very dynamic things that the camera does. I would like nothing more than to learn about all the cool tricks they did behind-the-scenes to make this movie happen, but for now, that’s my assessment.
I think there’s something naturally appealing about the classic “boy and his dog” dynamic. I can’t pin down exactly what that magic spark is, but it almost always makes a story irresistible. Frankenweenie gets it right, by strongly establishing the relationship that Victor and Sparky have. They love each other, so we love them, and we want them to see it through together. Not all of Burton’s movies are terribly well-written, but I think he can handle competent storytelling when he wants to. Frankenweenie isn’t particularly complex or anything, but it knows what it’s about and it sticks to that outline. Luckily for Burton, the outline happened to be his original short film from 1984, which this remake changes little from. Maybe that has something to do with the success of the new version, but I can’t say for sure.
Expanding the story from that thirty-minute short to a feature-length motion picture was undoubtedly a challenge, and the final product is admittedly a tad aimless in its second act. The film introduces and then quickly drops a theme involving the public’s attitude towards science and, though this is subtextual, their attitude towards the teaching of evolution in schools. The word “evolution” is never used, but the town hall meeting where parents complain that their kids are “asking questions” about things they can’t explain sends a pretty clear message. I was happy about the inclusion of that message, and the unusually (for a Hollywood production) smart attitude that the film takes towards scientific study, but it doesn’t have any effect on the ending, so its inclusion is mainly filler material to pad out the second act.
It’s in the third act, thought, that Frankenweenie really comes to life. At heart, the film is an homage to classic B-movies with classic monsters, and in the climax Burton lets loose, and the film really shows its true nature. The references fly fast, with every monster movie from Godzilla to Gremlins getting a nod. That’s right, for twenty-five minutes, Tim Burton turned into Quentin Tarantino, and oh, how beautiful that union turned out to be. The final act was what ultimately sold me on Frankenweenie. Is it perfect? No. There are a few major plot holes and several dropped plot threads, but the movie won me over in spite of all that. I had a blast with Frankenweenie. How could I not recommend you go see it?